Tip Sheet: Ten Things Physicians and Patients Should Question

About the Choosing Wisely® Campaign

The American Board of International Medicine (ABIM) Foundation and Consumer Reports launched the Choosing Wisely® campaign to:

  • Encourage people to learn more about the tests and treatments their healthcare providers recommend.
  • Question and discuss these with their healthcare providers under certain circumstances.

Numerous medical societies have gone through an in-depth review process to identify at least five tests or treatments that may not have enough medical research that shows their safety or effectiveness. In some cases, the research may even show unwanted effects. At the same time, the ABIM Foundation and Consumer Reports have been encouraging people to check the lists to see if tests or treatments their healthcare providers have recommended are on them. If so, the campaign urges people to bring this up with their healthcare providers and discuss it.

The American Geriatrics Society's Choosing Wisely® Lists

The American Geriatrics Society published two lists in 2013 and 2014, which includes ten treatments that may have more risks than benefits for older people. This is particularly important for older adults. Why? Treatments that may be helpful for younger adults may not be safe or reliable in older people, because of physical changes that take place as we get older.

  • Check to see if any medications or other treatments you’ve been prescribed are listed.
  • Don’t worry if a test or treatment your healthcare provider has recommended is on one of the Choosing Wisely lists, and don’t stop a treatment if it’s on the list. Talk to your healthcare provider and sort it out. The Choosing Wisely campaign’s goal is to start conversations about potentially unnecessary tests or treatments and to empower the public to ask questions of their healthcare providers.

Just because a test or treatment is listed doesn’t mean it’s unreliable or ineffective for you. Different people respond differently, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to medical care. 

(Click on each item below to read more.)

Choosing Wisely: Ten Things Physicians and Patients Should Question 

Don’t recommend percutaneous feeding tubes in patients with advanced dementia; instead offer oral assisted feeding.

Careful hand-feeding for patients with severe dementia is at least as good as tube-feeding for the outcomes of death, aspiration pneumonia, functional status, and patient comfort. Food is the preferred nutrient. Tube-feeding is associated with agitation, increased use of physical and chemical restraints, and worsening pressure ulcers.

Don’t use antipsychotics as first choice to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.

People with dementia often exhibit aggression, resistance to care, and other challenging or disruptive behaviors. In such instances, antipsychotic medicines are often prescribed.  However, they provide limited and inconsistent benefits while posing risks, including over-sedation, cognitive decline, and increased likelihood of falls, strokes, and mortality.  Use of these drugs in patients with dementia should be limited to cases where non-pharmacologic measures have failed and patients pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. Identifying and addressing causes of behavior change can make drug treatment unnecessary.

Avoid using medications other than metformin to achieve hemoglobin A1c. (<7.5% in most older adults; moderate control is generally better.)

There is no evidence that using medications to achieve tight glycemic control in older adults with type 2 diabetes is beneficial. Among non-older adults, except for long-term reductions in myocardial infarction and mortality with metformin, using medications to achieve glycated hemoglobin levels less than 7% is associated with harms, including higher mortality rates. Tight control has been consistently shown to produce higher rates of hypoglycemia in older adults. Given the long timeframe to achieve theorized micro-vascular benefits of tight control, glycemic targets should reflect patient goals, health status, and life expectancy. Reasonable glycemic targets would be 7.0 – 7.5% in healthy older adults with long life expectancy, 7.5 – 8.0% in those with moderate comorbidity and a life expectancy < 10 years, and 8.0 – 9.0% in those with multiple morbidities and shorter life expectancy.

Don’t use benzodiazepines or other sedative-hypnotics in older adults as first choice for insomnia, agitation or delirium.

Large scale studies consistently show that the risk of motor vehicle crashes, falls, and hip fractures leading to hospitalization and death can more than double in older adults taking benzodiazepines and other sedative-hypnotics. Older patients, their caregivers, and their providers should recognize these potential harms when considering treatment strategies for insomnia, agitation, or delirium. Use of benzodiazepines should be reserved for alcohol withdrawal symptoms/delirium tremens or severe generalized anxiety disorder unresponsive to other therapies.

Don’t use antimicrobials to treat bacteriuria in older adults unless specific urinary tract symptoms are present.

Cohort studies have found no adverse outcomes for older men or women associated with asymptomatic bacteriuria. Antimicrobial treatment studies for asymptomatic bacteriuria in older adults show no benefits and show increased adverse antimicrobial effects. Consensus criteria has been developed to characterize the specific clinical symptoms that, when associated with bacteriuria, define urinary tract infection. Screening for and treatment of asymptomatic bacteriuria is recommended before urologic procedures for which mucosal bleeding is anticipated.

Don’t prescribe cholinesterase inhibitors for dementia without periodic assessment for perceived cognitive benefits and adverse gastrointestinal effects.

Although some randomized control trials suggest that cholinesterase inhibitors may improve cognitive testing results, it is unclear whether these changes are clinically meaningful.  It is uncertain whether these medicines delay institutionalization, improve quality of life, or lessen caregiver burden. No studies have investigated benefits beyond a year nor clarified the risks and benefits of long-term therapy. Clinicians, patients, and their caregivers should discuss treatment goals of practical value that can be easily assessed and the nature and likelihood of adverse effects before beginning a trial of cholinesterase inhibitors. If the desired effects (including stabilization of cognition) are not perceived within 12 weeks or so, cholinesterase inhibitors should be discontinued.

Don’t recommend screening for breast, colorectal, prostate, or lung cancer without considering life expectancy and the risks of testing, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment.

Cancer screening is associated with short-term risks, including complications from testing, overdiagnosis, and treatment of tumors that would not have led to symptoms. For prostate cancer, 1,055 men would need to be screened and 37 would need to be treated to avoid one death in 11 years. For breast and colorectal cancer, 1,000 patients would need to be screened to prevent one death in 10 years. For lung cancer, much of the evidence for benefit from low dose CT screening for smokers is from healthier, younger patients under age 65.  Further, although screening 1000 persons would avoid four lung cancer deaths in 6 years, 273 persons would have an abnormal result, requiring 36 to get an invasive procedure with 8 persons suffering complications. 

Avoid using prescription appetite stimulants or high-calorie supplements for treatment of anorexia or cachexia in older adults.

Instead, optimize social supports, discontinue medications that may interfere with eating, provide appealing food and feeding assistance, and clarify patient goals and expectations.

Unintentional weight loss is a common problem for medically ill or frail older adults. Although high-calorie supplements increase weight in older people, there is no evidence that they affect other important clinical outcomes, such as quality of life, mood, functional status, or survival. Use of megestrol acetate results in minimal improvements in appetite and weight gain, no improvement in quality of life or survival, and increased risk of thrombotic events, fluid retention, and death. In patients who take megestrol acetate, one in 12 will have an increase in weight and one in 23 will have an adverse event leading to death. 

The 2012 AGS Beers Criteria® lists megestrol acetate and cyproheptadine as medications to avoid in older adults. Systematic reviews of cannabinoids, dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA and EPA), thalidomide, and anabolic steroids have not identified adequate evidence for the efficacy and safety of these agents for weight gain. Mirtazapine is likely to cause weight gain or increased appetite when used to treat depression, but there is little evidence to support its use to promote appetite and weight gain in the absence of depression.

Don’t prescribe a medication without conducting a drug regimen review.

Older patients disproportionately use more prescription and non-prescription drugs than other populations, increasing the risk for side effects and inappropriate prescribing. 

Polypharmacy may lead to diminished adherence, adverse drug reactions, and increased risk of cognitive impairment, falls, and functional decline. A medication review identifies high-risk medications, drug interactions, and those continued beyond their indication. Additionally, medication review detects unnecessary medications and underuse of medications, and may reduce medication burden. An annual review of medications is an indicator for quality prescribing in vulnerable older people.

Avoid physical restraints to manage behavioral symptoms of hospitalized older adults with delirium.

Persons with delirium may display behaviors that risk injury or interference with treatment. There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of physical restraints in these situations. Physical restraints can lead to serious injury or death and may worsen agitation and delirium. Effective alternatives include strategies to prevent and treat delirium, identification and management of conditions causing patient discomfort, environmental modifications to promote orientation and effective sleep-wake cycles, frequent family contact, and supportive interaction with staff. 

Nursing educational initiatives and innovative models of practice have been shown to be effective in implementing a restraint-free approach to patients with delirium. This approach includes continuous observation; trying re-orientation once, and if not effective, not continuing; observing behavior to obtain clues about patients’ needs; discontinuing and/or hiding unnecessary medical monitoring devices or IVs; and avoiding short-term memory questions to limit patient agitation. Pharmacological interventions are occasionally used after evaluation by a medical provider at the bedside, if a patient presents harm to him or herself or others. If physical restraints are used, they should only be used as a last resort, in the least restrictive manner, and for the shortest possible time.


Last Updated: June 2017