Choosing Wisely: Next Steps

A practical framework for understanding and reducing medical overuse: Conceptualizing overuse through the patient-clinician interaction


Overuse of medical services is an increasingly recognized driver of poor-quality care and high cost. A practical framework is needed to guide clinical decisions and facilitate concrete actions that can reduce overuse and improve care. We used an iterative, expert-informed, evidence-based process to develop a framework for conceptualizing interventions to reduce medical overuse. Given the complexity of defining and identifying overused care in nuanced clinical situations and the need to define care appropriateness in the context of an individual patient, this framework conceptualizes the patient–clinician interaction as the nexus of decisions regarding inappropriate care. This interaction is influenced by other utilization drivers, including healthcare system factors, the practice environment, the culture of professional medicine, the culture of healthcare consumption, and individual patient and clinician factors. The variable strength of the evidence supporting these domains highlights important areas for further investigation. Journal of Hospital Medicine 2017;12:346-351. © 2017 Society of Hospital Medicine

© 2017 Society of Hospital Medicine

Medical services overuse is the provision of healthcare services for which there is no medical basis or for which harms equal or exceed benefits.1 This overuse drives poor-quality care and unnecessary cost.2,3 The high prevalence of overuse is recognized by patients,4 clinicians,5 and policymakers.6 Initiatives to reduce overuse have targeted physicians,7 the public,8 and medical educators9,10 but have had limited impact.11,12 Few studies have addressed methods for reducing overuse, and de-implementation of nonbeneficial practices has proved challenging.1,13,14 Models for reducing overuse are only theoretical15 or are focused on administrative decisions.16,17 We think a practical framework is needed. We used an iterative process, informed by expert opinion and discussion, to design such a framework.


The authors, who have expertise in overuse, value, medical education, evidence-based medicine, and implementation science, reviewed related conceptual frameworks18 and evidence regarding drivers of overuse. We organized these drivers into domains to create a draft framework, which we presented at Preventing Overdiagnosis 2015, a meeting of clinicians, patients, and policymakers interested in overuse. We incorporated feedback from meeting attendees to modify framework domains, and we performed structured searches (using key words in Pubmed) to explore, and estimate the strength of, evidence supporting items within each domain. We rated supporting evidence as strong (studies found a clear correlation between a factor and overuse), moderate (evidence suggests such a correlation or demonstrates a correlation between a particular factor and utilization but not overuse per se), weak (only indirect evidence exists), or absent (no studies identified evaluating a particular factor). All authors reached consensus on ratings.

Framework Principles and Evidence

Patient-centered definition of overuse. During framework development, defining clinical appropriateness emerged as the primary challenge to identifying and reducing overuse. Although some care generally is appropriate based on strong evidence of benefit, and some is inappropriate given a clear lack of benefit or harm, much care is of unclear or variable benefit. Practice guidelines can help identify overuse, but their utility may be limited by lack of evidence in specific clinical situations,19 and their recommendations may apply poorly to an individual patient. This presents challenges to using guidelines to identify and reduce overuse.

Despite limitations, the scope of overuse has been estimated by applying broad, often guideline-based, criteria for care appropriateness to administrative data.20 Unfortunately, these estimates provide little direction to clinicians and patients partnering to make usage decisions. During framework development, we identified the importance of a patient-level, patient-specific definition of overuse. This approach reinforces the importance of meeting patient needs while standardizing treatments to reduce overuse. A patient-centered approach may also assist professional societies and advocacy groups in developing actionable campaigns and may uncover evidence gaps.

Centrality of patient-clinician interaction. During framework development, the patient–clinician interaction emerged as the nexus through which drivers of overuse exert influence. The centrality of this interaction has been demonstrated in studies of the relationship between care continuity and overuse21 or utilization,22,23 by evidence that communication and patient–clinician relationships affect utilization,24 and by the observation that clinician training in shared decision-making reduces overuse.25 A patient-centered framework assumes that, at least in the weighing of clinically reasonable options, a patient-centered approach optimizes outcomes for that patient.

Incorporating drivers of overuse. We incorporated drivers of overuse into domains and related them to the patient–clinician interaction.26 Domains included the culture of healthcare consumption, patient factors and experiences, the practice environment, the culture of professional medicine, and clinician attitudes and beliefs.

We characterized the evidence illustrating how drivers within each domain influence healthcare use. The evidence for each domain is listed in Table 1.

. Factors That Contribute to Each Domain of the Framework for Overuse Of Care
Table 1


The final framework is shown in the Figure. Within the healthcare system, patients are influenced by the culture of healthcare consumption, which varies within and among countries.27 Clinicians are influenced by the culture of medical care, which varies by practice setting,28 and by their training environment.29 Both clinicians and patients are influenced by the practice environment and by personal experiences. Ultimately, clinical decisions occur within the specific patient–clinician interaction.24 Table 1 lists each domain’s components, likely impact on overuse, and estimated strength of supporting evidence. Interventions can be conceptualized within appropriate domains or through the interaction between patient and clinician.

Framework for understanding and reducing overuse


We developed a novel and practical conceptual framework for characterizing drivers of overuse and potential intervention points. To our knowledge, this is the first framework incorporating a patient-specific approach to overuse and emphasizing the patient–clinician interaction. Key strengths of framework development are inclusion of a range of perspectives and characterization of the evidence within each domain. Limitations include lack of a formal systematic review and broad, qualitative assessments of evidence strength. However, we believe this framework provides an important conceptual foundation for the study of overuse and interventions to reduce overuse.

Framework Applications

This framework, which highlights the many drivers of overuse, can facilitate understanding of overuse and help conceptualize change, prioritize research goals, and inform specific interventions. For policymakers, the framework can inform efforts to reduce overuse by emphasizing the need for complex interventions and by clarifying the likely impact of interventions targeting specific domains. Similarly, for clinicians and quality improvement professionals, the framework can ground root cause analyses of overuse-related problems and inform allocation of limited resources. Finally, the relatively weak evidence on the role of most acknowledged drivers of overuse suggests an important research agenda. Specifically, several pressing needs have been identified: defining relevant physician and patient cultural factors, investigating interventions to impact culture, defining practice environment features that optimize care appropriateness, and describing specific patient–clinician interaction practices that minimize overuse while providing needed care.

Targeting Interventions

Domains within the framework are influenced by different types of interventions, and different stakeholders may target different domains. For example:

  • The culture of healthcare consumption may be influenced through public education (eg, Choosing Wisely® patient resources)30-32 and public health campaigns.
  • The practice environment may be influenced by initiatives to align clinician incentives,33 team care,34 electronic health record interventions,35 and improved access.36
  • Clinician attitudes and beliefs may be influenced by audit and feedback,37-40 reflection,41 role modeling,42 and education.43-45
  • Patient attitudes and beliefs may be influenced by education, access to price and quality information, and increased engagement in care.46,47
  • For clinicians, the patient–clinician interaction can be improved through training in communication and shared decision-making,25 through access to information (eg, costs) that can be easily shared with patients,48,49 and through novel visit structures (eg, scribes).50
  • On the patient side, this interaction can be optimized with improved access (eg, through telemedicine)51,52 or with patient empowerment during hospitalization.
  • The culture of medicine is difficult to influence. Change likely will occur through:

○ Regulatory interventions (eg, Transforming Clinical Practice Initiative of Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation).

○ Educational initiatives (eg, high-value care curricula of Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine/American College of Physicians53).

○ Medical journal features (eg, “Less Is More” in JAMA Internal Medicine54 and “Things We Do for No Reason” in Journal of Hospital Medicine).

○ Professional organizations (eg, Choosing Wisely®).

As organizations implement quality improvement initiatives to reduce overuse of services, the framework can be used to target interventions to relevant domains. For example, a hospital leader who wants to reduce opioid prescribing may use the framework to identify the factors that encourage prescribing in each domain—poor understanding of pain treatment (a clinician factor), desire for early discharge encouraging overly aggressive pain management (an environmental factor), patient demand for opioids combined with poor understanding of harms (patient factors), and poor communication regarding pain (a patient–clinician interaction factor). Although not all relevant factors can be addressed, their classification by domain facilitates intervention, in this case perhaps leading to a focus on clinician and patient education on opioids and development of a practical communication tool that targets 3 domains. Table 2 lists ways in which the framework informs approaches to this and other overused services in the hospital setting. Note that some drivers can be acknowledged without identifying targeted interventions.

. Using the Framework for Real-Life Examples of Overuse to Identify Practical Ways in Which Overuse Can Be Addressed
Table 2

Moving Forward

Through a multi-stakeholder iterative process, we developed a practical framework for understanding medical overuse and interventions to reduce it. Centered on the patient–clinician interaction, this framework explains overuse as the product of medical and patient culture, the practice environment and incentives, and other clinician and patient factors. Ultimately, care is implemented during the patient–clinician interaction, though few interventions to reduce overuse have focused on that domain.

Conceptualizing overuse through the patient–clinician interaction maintains focus on patients while promoting population health that is both better and lower in cost. This framework can guide interventions to reduce overuse in important parts of the healthcare system while ensuring the final goal of high-quality individualized patient care.


The authors thank Valerie Pocus for helping with the artistic design of Framework. An early version of Framework was presented at the 2015 Preventing Overdiagnosis meeting in Bethesda, Maryland.


Dr. Morgan received research support from the VA Health Services Research (CRE 12-307), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) (K08- HS18111). Dr. Leppin’s work was supported by CTSA Grant Number UL1 TR000135 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Korenstein’s work on this paper was supported by a Cancer Center Support Grant from the National Cancer Institute to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (award number P30 CA008748). Dr. Morgan provided a self-developed lecture in a 3M-sponsored series on hospital epidemiology and has received honoraria for serving as a book and journal editor for Springer Publishing. Dr. Smith is employed by the American College of Physicians and owns stock in Merck, where her husband is employed. The other authors report no potential conflicts of interest.