Too Much of Good Thing: Elders Getting Colonoscopies With Dangerous Frequency

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Getting a colonoscopy once every ten years has become somewhat of a necessary evil for those people over 50 years old who wish to stay healthy and cancer-free. Despite the discomfort and mild embarrassment associated with the procedure, many elders are taking the advice of their doctors and getting regular colon cancer screenings--so regularly in fact, that concerns have been raised that they are getting colonoscopies too frequently.

A recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, has uncovered some startling statistics regarding the number of unnecessary colonoscopies conducted on Medicare enrollees.

The prevailing medical opinion is that, if there are no polyps found during a screening and a person doesn't have a family history of colon cancer, then they only need to have a colonoscopy once every ten years.

However, upon examination of over 24,000 Medicare beneficiaries, 24% were found to have received more than one colonoscopy in seven years for no apparent medical reason.

This is a sobering finding considering that unnecessary colonoscopies not only tax the financial capacity of Medicare, but can also put a person at greater risk for complications associated with the procedure.

A colonoscopy is not a test that should be undertaken lightly; especially for someone who is of advanced age.

While developments in medical technology have made the procedure less and less invasive over the years, it is still a test that carries certain risks with it—especially if polyps are found that have to be removed or biopsied for examination. This risk becomes increasingly salient as a person ages, and there does come a point where the benefits of the test are outweighed by the potential complications.

When deciding on whether to personally undergo or encourage an elder to undergo a medical test it is important to get all of the information you possibly can about the procedure and its associated risks. Gather information from a variety of trusted sources and make your own decision. You will not only feel better about the outcome, but you are also more likely to make the choice that is right for you or the elder you are caring for.

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5 Comments

My mother was in the hospital a few months ago for leg pain, due to her arteries being clogged (she has diabetes). While in the hospital, the nurse mentioned they were going to do a colonoscopy. I said "absolutely not", and thank goodness I did! My mother is 89 1/2 years old, and such a procedure would have been unnecessary, expensive, and undue discomfort for her. I think they just want to rack up the bill since they know Medicare will pay for it. Shameful!
It was good that you were there-it is a good idea to make sure someone calls you to talk to you or a family member who is responsible for the elder before any test are done or action is taken. My sister visited the hospital where my mother was a few times a day but on one visit she saw a red dot on the wall by Mom's bed and asked what that was she was told it was a DNR order -our Mother had been talked into signing the paper and she is hard of hearing and did not know what she was signing-my sister did not leave the hospital until the order was changed. My husband was on life support and the day we were planning to stop life support because there was no chance of recovery they came in twice to take him for test and I refused. Also the doc charged medicare and our insurance company for two hospital visits after he was taken to the Funeral Home. I reported it to medicare and they blew me off-they were not going to do anything about the fraud-my insurance company thanked me for reporting it to them.
One way to think about the decision is, what would you do if the results show cancer? My mother refused tests of a mass detected in routine screening because, as she explained to her geriatrician, "I would refuse chemo anyway, so what good would it do to know? I've lived a good long life and I know I'm going to die of something. I just don't know what." Her doctor respected that decision. I encourage healthy people to have the recommended tests at the recommended intervals. But elderly people in ill health, and especially those with dementia, should not be made to undergo uncomfortable, distressing, and expensive tests without a reasonable chance that the results will make any difference in their lives.

My husband has been hospitalized twice since he's had dementia and I have leared exactly what 195Austin talks about: people too weak or confused to speak for themselves need around-the-clock family presence. I am bringing this up in our next family conference. Kids, if Dad has to be hospitalized again, plan on divvying up the shifts of staying with him!