In countless situations, such as blood tests that are mildly out of the normal range, the standard of care is “watchful waiting.” But compared with patients elsewhere, American patients are more likely to push their doctors to treat rather than watch and wait. A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine suggested that American men with low-risk prostate cancer—the sort that usually doesn’t cause much trouble if left alone—tend to push for treatments that may have serious side effects while failing to improve outcomes. In most other countries, leaving such cancers alone is not the exception but the rule.
American patients similarly don’t like to be told that unexplained symptoms aren’t ominous enough to merit tests. Robert Joseph, a longtime ob‑gyn at three Boston-area hospital systems who last year became a medical director at a firm that runs clinical trials, says some of his patients used to come in demanding laparoscopic surgery to investigate abdominal pain that would almost certainly have gone away on its own. “I told them about the risks of the surgery, but I couldn’t talk them out of it, and if I refused, my liability was huge,” he says. Hospitals might question non-indicated and expensive surgeries, he adds, but saying the patient insisted is sometimes enough to close the case. Joseph, like many American doctors, also worried about getting a bad review from a patient who didn’t want to hear “no.” Such frustrations were a big reason he stopped practicing, he says.