Association of Low-Value Testing With Subsequent Health Care Use and Clinical Outcomes Among Low-risk Primary Care Outpatients Undergoing an Annual Health Examination

JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Jul 1;180(7):973-983. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1611.


Importance: The association of low-value testing with downstream care and clinical outcomes among primary care outpatients is unknown to date.

Objective: To assess the association of low-value testing with subsequent care among low-risk primary care outpatients undergoing an annual health examination (AHE).

Design, setting, and participants: This population-based retrospective cohort study used administrative health care claims from Ontario, Canada, for primary care outpatients undergoing an AHE between April 1, 2012, and March 31, 2016, to identify individuals who could be placed into one (or more) of the following 3 cohorts: adult patients (18 years or older) at low risk for cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, adult patients at low risk for cardiovascular disease, and female patients (aged 13-20 years or older than 69 years) at low risk for cervical cancer. The dates of analysis were June 3 to September 12, 2019.

Exposures: Low-value screening tests were defined per cohort as (1) a chest radiograph within 7 days, (2) an electrocardiogram (ECG) within 30 days, or (3) a Papanicolaou test within 7 days after an AHE.

Main outcomes and measures: Subsequent specialist visits, diagnostic tests, and procedures within 90 days after a low-value test (if the patient had a chest radiograph, ECG, or Papanicolaou test) or end of the exposure observation window (if not tested).

Results: Included in the chest radiograph, ECG, and Papanicolaou test cohorts of propensity score-matched pairs were 43 532 patients (mean [SD] age, 47.5 [14.4] years; 38.5% female), 245 686 patients (mean [SD] age, 49.9 [13.7] years; 51.1% female), and 29 194 patients (mean [SD] age, 45.5 [27.1] years; 100% female), respectively. At 90 days, chest radiographs in low-risk patients were associated with an additional 0.87 (95% CI, 0.69-1.05) and 1.96 (95% CI, 1.71-2.22) patients having an outpatient pulmonology visit or an abdominal or thoracic computed tomography scan per 100 patients, respectively, and ECGs in low-risk patients were associated with an additional 1.92 (95% CI, 1.82-2.02), 5.49 (95% CI, 5.33-5.65), and 4.46 (95% CI, 4.31-4.61) patients having an outpatient cardiologist visit, a transthoracic echocardiogram, or a cardiac stress test per 100 patients, respectively. At 180 days, Papanicolaou testing in low-risk patients was associated with an additional 1.31 (95% CI, 0.84-1.78), 52.8 (95% CI, 51.9-53.6), and 0.84 (95% CI, 0.66-1.01) patients having an outpatient gynecology visit, a follow-up Papanicolaou test, or colposcopy per 100 patients, respectively.

Conclusions and relevance: Observed associations in this population-based cohort study suggest that testing in low-risk patients as part of an AHE increases the likelihood of subsequent specialist visits, diagnostic tests, and procedures.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Delivery of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outpatients*
  • Population Surveillance / methods*
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Propensity Score*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult