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Money Matters Make Docs More Likely to Order Useless Knee MRIs

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images(DURHAM, N.C.) -- Bothered by some knee pain? You’re more likely to get an MRI if you see a doctor whose pockets stand to benefit from your scan, a new study suggests.

Physician self-referral – that is, doctors who send patients to tests they perform themselves, or at centers where they have a financial interest – is making headlines and raising eyebrows. So a team of researchers set out to determine whether money changes referral patterns in a group of patients sent for knee MRIs.

To answer this question, the research team, led by Matthew Lungren, MD, at the Interventional Radiology Translational Research Lab at Duke University Medical Center, reviewed 700 knee MRI studies interpreted by one radiology practice. These studies had been referred by two groups of physicians: one group had no financial interest in the imaging equipment, the other group of doctors did serve to benefit from the imaging studies. The patients and doctors were similar in both groups.

The researchers found that those patients sent for an MRI by doctors with a financial stake in the tests (117 ordered) had higher rates of negative studies (205 negative MRIs) – that is, the MRI was more likely to reveal a normal knee. This suggests, the authors conclude, that the bias inherent in financial incentive might lead doctors to have a lower referral threshold.

As conversations over healthcare costs heat up, this study, published in the journal Radiology, offers compelling evidence that self-referral practices deserve a closer look.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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