Why Are Stents Still Used If They Don’t Work?

Why Are Stents Still Used If They Don’t Work?
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Over and over, studies have shown that doctors tend to make different clinical decisions for patients based on how much they will get paid personally.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In 2007, we learned from the COURAGE trial that angioplasty and stents don’t reduce the risk of death or heart attack, but patients didn’t seem to get the memo. Only 1 percent realize there was no mortality or heart attack benefit. Perhaps because most cardiologists failed to happen to mention that little fact. One can imagine that if patients actually understood all they were getting was symptomatic relief that they’d be less likely to go under the knife. But then, ten years later, the ORBITA trial was published, showing even the promise of symptom relief was an illusion.

The implications are profound and far-reaching. First and foremost, the results showed unequivocally that there are no benefits to angioplasty and stents for stable heart disease. Basically, patients would be risking harm for no benefit whatsoever; so, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a fully-informed patient would choose an invasive procedure for nothing. Remember the stent consent form? Now, it looks like this.

So, is the ORBITA trial the last nail in the coffin for stents in non-emergency situations? An editorial in the journal Cardiovascular Revascularization Medicine disagreed, pointing to the broad angina relief that occurred in both arms. In other words, “stents helped” (even if the fake operation without stents helped just as much. So hey, if I give a patient a stent and they are benefiting from the “placebo effect,” who am I to interfere with that benefit of this quote-unquote “therapy”? Well then, why not do fake surgeries? Stent placement can go for like $40,000. It’d be cheaper to just fake the whole thing. The reason we shouldn’t keep electively stenting people is because there’s a body count. During stent placement, 2 percent of patients develop bleeding or blood vessel damage, and another 1 percent die or have a heart attack or a stroke. And then, because you are having something stuck in your chest, 3 percent of patients have a bleeding event from the blood thinners you have to be on, or the blood thinners don’t work, and the stent clots off and causes a heart attack.

Why are they still done when we don’t just have no evidence of benefit, but in many cases explicit evidence of no benefit? One of the sources of resistance may be all the financial gain. These procedures make a lot of money for hospitals. Don’t expect them to be promoting lifestyle changes anytime soon, nor will physicians quickly abandon a practice that seems to make sense and supports their income. Is it that simple? Is it that famous Upton Sinclair quote on how “[i]t is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it?” Think that’s just cynicism? Let’s ask doctors themselves.

Thousands of physicians were surveyed, and 70 percent believed that physicians provide unnecessary procedures when they profit from them. That’s what doctors themselves believe. And the data bears this out. Doctors have been shown to make different clinical decisions for patients based on how much they get paid. For example, when choosing which chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, increasing a physician’s margin by 10 percent can yield up to a 177 percent increase in the likelihood of choosing one drug over another.

That may be why Caesarean sections are more likely to be performed by for-profit hospitals compared to non-profit hospitals. Operating on commission. Pay surgeons per procedure and you can increase surgery rates 78 percent. Could that explain why we do 101 percent more angioplasties than any other rich country? A study on physician financial incentives and treatment choices in heart attack management found that they do indeed respond to payments, and the response is quite large. Unconditionally, plans that pay physicians more for more invasive treatments seem to result in more invasive treatments. So, it may actually be quite common for patients to receive different treatments based on whether the doctor is getting paid per procedure.

One of my heroes, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn—who always tries to see the best in people—even he had to break down and admit that compensation may be playing a role, after evidence surfaced that doctors are running up millions doing unnecessary stent implants: doctors like Mark Midei, who inserted 30 in a single day. That could be like a million dollars’ worth of billing. As a token of their gratitude, a sales representative from the stent company spent $2,000 to buy him a whole, slow-smoked pig, peach cobbler, and all the fixins.

We’re the only developed country where health care is delivered like this, explained the chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “The economic incentives are just too strong.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In 2007, we learned from the COURAGE trial that angioplasty and stents don’t reduce the risk of death or heart attack, but patients didn’t seem to get the memo. Only 1 percent realize there was no mortality or heart attack benefit. Perhaps because most cardiologists failed to happen to mention that little fact. One can imagine that if patients actually understood all they were getting was symptomatic relief that they’d be less likely to go under the knife. But then, ten years later, the ORBITA trial was published, showing even the promise of symptom relief was an illusion.

The implications are profound and far-reaching. First and foremost, the results showed unequivocally that there are no benefits to angioplasty and stents for stable heart disease. Basically, patients would be risking harm for no benefit whatsoever; so, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a fully-informed patient would choose an invasive procedure for nothing. Remember the stent consent form? Now, it looks like this.

So, is the ORBITA trial the last nail in the coffin for stents in non-emergency situations? An editorial in the journal Cardiovascular Revascularization Medicine disagreed, pointing to the broad angina relief that occurred in both arms. In other words, “stents helped” (even if the fake operation without stents helped just as much. So hey, if I give a patient a stent and they are benefiting from the “placebo effect,” who am I to interfere with that benefit of this quote-unquote “therapy”? Well then, why not do fake surgeries? Stent placement can go for like $40,000. It’d be cheaper to just fake the whole thing. The reason we shouldn’t keep electively stenting people is because there’s a body count. During stent placement, 2 percent of patients develop bleeding or blood vessel damage, and another 1 percent die or have a heart attack or a stroke. And then, because you are having something stuck in your chest, 3 percent of patients have a bleeding event from the blood thinners you have to be on, or the blood thinners don’t work, and the stent clots off and causes a heart attack.

Why are they still done when we don’t just have no evidence of benefit, but in many cases explicit evidence of no benefit? One of the sources of resistance may be all the financial gain. These procedures make a lot of money for hospitals. Don’t expect them to be promoting lifestyle changes anytime soon, nor will physicians quickly abandon a practice that seems to make sense and supports their income. Is it that simple? Is it that famous Upton Sinclair quote on how “[i]t is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it?” Think that’s just cynicism? Let’s ask doctors themselves.

Thousands of physicians were surveyed, and 70 percent believed that physicians provide unnecessary procedures when they profit from them. That’s what doctors themselves believe. And the data bears this out. Doctors have been shown to make different clinical decisions for patients based on how much they get paid. For example, when choosing which chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, increasing a physician’s margin by 10 percent can yield up to a 177 percent increase in the likelihood of choosing one drug over another.

That may be why Caesarean sections are more likely to be performed by for-profit hospitals compared to non-profit hospitals. Operating on commission. Pay surgeons per procedure and you can increase surgery rates 78 percent. Could that explain why we do 101 percent more angioplasties than any other rich country? A study on physician financial incentives and treatment choices in heart attack management found that they do indeed respond to payments, and the response is quite large. Unconditionally, plans that pay physicians more for more invasive treatments seem to result in more invasive treatments. So, it may actually be quite common for patients to receive different treatments based on whether the doctor is getting paid per procedure.

One of my heroes, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn—who always tries to see the best in people—even he had to break down and admit that compensation may be playing a role, after evidence surfaced that doctors are running up millions doing unnecessary stent implants: doctors like Mark Midei, who inserted 30 in a single day. That could be like a million dollars’ worth of billing. As a token of their gratitude, a sales representative from the stent company spent $2,000 to buy him a whole, slow-smoked pig, peach cobbler, and all the fixins.

We’re the only developed country where health care is delivered like this, explained the chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “The economic incentives are just too strong.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

You know that when dear Essy starts getting cynical, some bad stuff is going down. That’s why we need to join the civilized world and remove the profit motive from medicine.

This is the sixth in a seven-part video series on stents. The last one coming up is Heart Stents and Upcoding: How Cardiologists Game the System.

If you missed any of the earlier videos in the series, check out:

As I say over and over in this video series, during a heart attack, in an acute setting, angioplasty can be life-saving. As I reiterate, when I’m talking about stable CAD, I’m talking nonemergency situations. In an upcoming series I talk about pros and cons of statin drug therapy. Spoiler: If you have a history of heart disease or stroke, taking a statin is recommended. All of these videos, including the upcoming statin series, are available on a digital download of a webinar I did last year. You can find it here

UPDATE: A new meta-analysis was just published last month and alas, there is still zero survival benefit to stent placement for stable coronary artery disease, but at least there were fewer heart attacks. Since this still didn’t translate into actually living any longer, the foundation of treatment remains medical and lifestyle management. Hat tip to Dr. Bitterman!

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