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Choosing Wisely-Where Is the Choice?

A little over a year ago an editorial was posted in the Southwest Journal about the Choosing Wisely campaign from the American Board of Internal Medicine and Consumer Reports (1). You may remember that Choosing Wisely announced a list of procedures or treatments that patients should question (2). In the editorial we wondered why pulmonary organizations such as the American Thoracic Society (ATS) and the American College of Chest Physicians authored none of the recommendations and offered 10 suggestions. We also openly questioned if the recommendations were intended to improve patient care or reduce costs, and thus improve the profits of third party carriers.

We can now report that recommendations were announced at the recent ATS meeting in Philadelphia. Seven recommendations were made for critical care and seven for pulmonary disease. Five from the critical care list and five from the pulmonary list will eventually be chosen for inclusion in Choosing Wisely. The recommendations are listed below:

Critical Care

  1. Thou shalt not order diagnostic tests at regular intervals (e.g., daily) but instead order tests based on needs.
  2. Thou shalt not use parenteral nutrition in the first 7 days of an ICU admission in patients adequately nourished.
  3. Thou shalt not transfuse red blood cells in hemodynamically stable patients with a hemoglobin > 7 gm/dL.
  4. Thou shalt not sedate mechanically ventilated patients without an indication.
  5. Thou shalt not continue life support for at patients at high risk for death.
  6. Thou shalt not initiate or continue antimicrobials without an indication.
  7. Thou shalt not place or maintain an arterial or central venous catheter without an indication.


  1. Thou shall not perform thoracic CT scans for follow up of pulmonary nodules more frequently than the guidelines (Fleishner Society) suggest.
  2. Thou shalt not discontinue oxygen from recently discharged patient prescribed oxygen without checking for hypoxemia.
  3. Thou shalt not routinely administer intravenous corticosteroids for exacerbations of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease when the patient is able to take oral steroids.
  4. Thou shalt not do thoracic CT scan screening for patients at low risk for lung cancer.
  5. Thou shalt not do chest x-rays on asymptomatic patients routinely.
  6. Thou shalt not offer vasoactive agents for groups 2 (left heart disease) and 3 (hypoxia) pulmonary artery hypertension (PAH).
  7. Thou shalt not perform thoracic CT angiography for pulmonary embolism on patients with low probability and a negative d-dimer.

In the question and answer session after the recommendations were presented, a member of the audience noted that most of the recommendations were negative, directing physicians what not to do. We confess that we added the “Thou shalt not …” to emphasize this point but cannot overlook the fact that these recommendations look suspiciously like commandments. The negativity implicit in the ATS recommendations is consistent with the recommendations by other subspecialties listed on the Choosing Wisely website (2).  While the recommendations are reputedly about reducing the use of unnecessary or potentially dangerous testing, both worthy goals, the tone suggests there will be consequences for failure to comply.

What we find offensive is the Choosing Wisely and ultimately the ABIM foundation assertion that this is an initiative “focused on encouraging physicians, patients and other health care stakeholders to think and talk about medical tests and procedures that may be unnecessary” (2). Where is the encouragement and where is the choice in a series of DO NOT commandments?  It seems an even-handed approach of an objective statement would be much more appropriate and yet carry the same information, e.g. Chest CT scans are rarely required for screening patients at low risk for lung cancer rather than “Do not do thoracic CT scan screening for patients at low risk for lung cancer”.  It seems that rather than encouraging conversation the Choosing Wisely statement puts doctor and patient in an adversarial relationship especially if the doctor feels something is needed which is expressly stated with a “Do not”.

Rather than a laundry list of no-no’s a guiding principle might be better. The American College of Physicians (ACP) has offered, “The physician should always act in the best interests of the patient” (3). Despite objections to the profession of the author of the ACP statement, a lawyer, the overall sentiment is a good one (4). It removes the adversarial relationship the Choosing Wisely campaign encourages and places physicians where they belong-on the side of the patient.

In our view the present Choosing Wisely campaign has fundamental flaws-not because it is medically wrong but because it attempts to replace choice and good judgment with a rigid set of rules that undoubtedly will have many exceptions. Based on what we have seen so far, we suspect that Choosing Wisely is much more about saving money than improving patient care. We also predict it will be used by the unknowing or unscrupulous to further interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.  When the recommendations of an authoritarian body take the form of commandments and preempt clinical decision making, then it seems the wise choice of a wary clinician is to tacitly comply - in other words there is no choice.

Richard A. Robbins, M.D.*

Allen R. Thomas, M.D.*



  1. Robbins RA, Thomas AR. Will fewer tests improve healthcare or profits? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:111-3.
  2. (accessed 6/3/13).
  3. Snyder L.  American College of Physicians Ethics Manual.  Sixth Edition.  Ann Intern Med. 2012:156;1:suppl 73-101.
  4. Raschke RA. February 2012 critical care journal club. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:51-2.

*The opinions expressed in this editorial are the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the opinions of the Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care or the Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado Thoracic Societies.

Reference as: Robbins RA, Thomas AR. Choosing wisely-where is the choice? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2013;6(6):272-4. PDF

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