Friday, July 5, 2019

The Truth Doesn't Always Need A Test: Thresholds for Medical Decisions

Jason Carr, MD didn't need a test to know what this is
Kassirer (and Pauker) got the idea for the Threshold Approach to Medical Decisions in part (as he tells it in his memoir Unanticipated Outcomes) because he had observed a pattern of irrational behavior among nephrologists (he was one) in the 1960s.  Evaluating a patient with nephrotic syndrome and knowing the diagnosis was very likely to be membranous glomerulonephritis, most nephrologists still insisted on a biopsy prior to starting corticosteroids.  Pauker and Kassirer realized that we never get to 100% certainty in medicine and that tests only modify the pre-test probability of disease.  They reasoned that there ought to be a threshold of pre-test probability of disease that is high enough to justify treatment without testing.  That is, sometimes, the pre-test probability of disease is so high as that it obviates testing, and we can just skip to treatment and avoid risky and invasive testing like a kidney biopsy.  Only if the disease fails to respond to therapy (thereby reducing the clinical pre-test probability below the treatment threshold) should we resort to the biopsy.

Almost 40 years after the publication of their article, we still are not consistently following the axioms of the threshold approach.  Here are several recent examples:
A 20-something black woman presents with cough, weight loss, massive hilar and mediastinal lymphadenopathy and interstitial parenchymal changes.  She is scheduled for a bronchoscopy and EBUS to confirm the diagnosis of sarcoidosis prior to initiating corticosteroids.