Less is more medicine

The challenge of implementing of Less is More Medecine : a European perspective

26 May 2020


Authors : Omar Kherad Nathan Peiffer-Smadja Lina Karlafti Margus Lember Nathalie Van Aerde Orvar Gunnarsson Cristian Baicus Miguel Bigotte Vieira António Vaz-Carneiro Antonio Brucato Ivica Lazurova Wiktoria Leśniak Thomas Hanslik Stephen Hewitt Eleni Papanicolaou Olga Boeva Dror Dicker Biljana Ivanovska Nicola Montano

Summary of the article : Cécile Bour, MD

The concept of Less is More [1] medicine emerged in North America in 2010. It aims to serve as an invitation to recognize the potential risks of overuse of medical care that may result in harm rather than in better health tackling the erroneous assumption that more care is always better.
In response, several medical societies across the world launched quality-driven campaigns (“Choosing Wisely”)[2] ) and published “top-five lists” of low-value medical interventions that should be used to help make wise decisions in each clinical domain, by engaging patients in conversations about unnecessary tests, treatments and procedures.

The purpose of this article is to analyze the conditions and obstacles to the launch of a similar European initiative aimed at reducing the overuse of medical procedures that are currently identified as unnecessary and even harmful in daily practice. Therefore, such a program may lead to a reduction in the cost of health care, although the authors emphasize in their conclusion that this is not the primary objective, but a beneficial corollary effect.

The authors of the article also identify obstacles and challenges to the implementation of Less is More in several European countries, where overmedicalization is culturally rooted and required by a society that demands health certainty at almost any cost.
High expectations of patients, medical conduct, lack of follow-up and pernicious financial incentives all have more or less direct negative effects on over-medicalization.

To implement the Less is More recommendations on a large scale, multiple interventions and evaluation efforts are needed.

These recommendations consist of a top-five list of actions:
(1) A new cultural approach from medical school graduation courses, up to
(2) patient and society education,
(3) physician behavior change with data feedback,
(4) communication training and
(5) policy maker interventions.
In contrast with the prevailing maximization of care, the optimization of care promoted by Less is More medicine can be an intellectual challenge but also a real opportunity to promote sustainable medicine.

This project will constitute part of the future agenda of the European Federation of Internal Medicine.


Access almost universal to quality health care is one of the hallmarks of the "European model", but how can we ensure the sustainability of European healthcare systems in an era of aging populations and budget restriction?
Financial aspects should be taken in account, as avoiding unnecessary practices have become a priority to ensure quality and access to care for everyone in the long term in both poor as well as wealthy countries!
A major concern has been not to miss a disease, to avoid problems of underdiagnosis and undertreatment. This has been supported by sustained and powerful technological growth and we are now facing the other side of the coin.
This results in: too many drugs, too many tests, too many screenings, eventually becoming a threat with accumulating evidence of over-diagnosis itself leading to damage from unnecessary treatment.
Following this dual perspective, with both qualitative (patient safety and avoidance of low-value, ineffective care) and quantitative aspects (costs), a new trend emerged in medicine: Less is More.


Several medical societies across the world launched quality driven anti-waste campaigns such as Choosing Wisely in US, Smartermedicine in Switzerland, Slow Medicine in Italy, SMART Medicine Initiative in Israel, and Choosing Wisely in UK, France, Belgium, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation and Poland.
These societies published “top-five lists” of low-value medical interventions which should be avoided [3]

But the concept of Choosing Wisely is applicable to the screening.
The article evokes the aspect of Less is More in this field.


The key mechanism for change lies in creating a shared decision-making process between physicians and patients during routine clinical encounters.
Physicians are often reluctant to speak about overdiagnosis. Most participants in a US cross-sectional online survey who underwent routine cancer screening reported that their physicians did not tell them about overdiagnosis and overtreatment [4].
The few who received information about overtreatment had unrealistic beliefs about the extent of that risk.

We have discussed this point here : perception and reality
Both benefits and harms of action or inaction must be discussed in order to help make better decisions about clinical situations in which care is needed.
Clinicians and patients must share the responsibility for the final decision, as both parties experience the potential consequences.

A 2015 article[5] shows the level of over-detection that people would find acceptable in screening for breast, prostate and bowel cancer, and attempts to see whether the screening acceptance is influenced by the magnitude of the risks.
This survey illustrates the varying level of acceptance depending on the level of information of individuals and suggests that clear information should be included in invitation letters for screening.
The whole Choosing Wisely campaign is patient-oriented and promotes shared decision making.
That means using personalized assessments of potential benefits and harms, as well as considering the preferences of patients who are well informed about possible options. The interaction between patients and doctors must be strengthened because a good therapeutic relationship can cause the decrease of the unrealistic patient expectations which can cause overconsumption.
The Choosing Wisely campaign can help “educate” patients (meaning an education for comprehension of medical data) and explain them why an unnecessary test may be harmful so that doctors and patients can have more constructive conversations about the tests.

The dimension of healthcare costs is addressed more widely in the Anglo-Saxon countries than in France[6], in a relevant manner, as savings from unnecessary medical care can be put to good use in other areas (Editor’s note).


  1. Patients’s expectations
    For decades, the idea that seeking medical care is the key to maintaining well-being and that more medicine is better than less has been sold to patients.
    There is an enthusiasm for early diagnosis as part of preventive strategy, as this allows patients to feel heard and reassured.
    However, negative consequences of false positive diagnostic tests are underestimated. In addition, patients have huge expectations of their expensive health care system, and often bristle at recommendations that seem to limit their choice: any attempt to limit the access to doctors might be interpreted in relation to its economic dimension, raising fears about “rationing”.
    Moreover, the principle Less is More is frequently counterintuitive, too (for both physicians and patients), and because of this it is psychologically hard to accept.
  2. Physicians’s behaviour
    Some tests are ordered out of fear of missing a diagnosis. Cognitive biases, such as anticipated regret for missing a diagnosis, and commission bias, or the tendency toward action rather than inaction, lead to performing more tests. The fear of being sued for malpractice is of major importance, particularly in the US, where three-quarters of physicians report practicing defensive medicine, though “defensive” medicine is becoming more popular in Europe as well.
    An example is given [7] with the prescription of PSA test, despite the current non-recommendations for systematic screening of prostate cancer in men.
    In case of medical error, a physician who was exhaustive in patient care is less likely to be sued. This raises the issue of how physicians can balance the growing focus on patient satisfaction scores with the drive for evidence-based medicine. Some physicians are aware of the guidelines but disagree with the evidence and more broadly misunderstood the evidence-based medicine (EBM) approach. That’s true, some recommendations may rely upon biased studies or on experts opinion, thus far away from being “evidence-based” ….[8] We also have addressed this topic [9] [10].
  3. Other factors, which are barriers to reduce overuse of medical care, are detailed in the article, such as:
  • Sometimes insufficient evidence in some medical controversies,
  • Lack of research and lack of resources for research,
  • Fragmentation of care (e.g., moving from one care setting to another such as from a hospital to a specialized care facility, or simply from one physician to another increases the risk of care errors. New medications could be prescribed in duplicate or negatively interact with other treatments),
  • Difficult to measure the impact of less is more practice
  • Financial incentives (the fee-for-service system as in France, Switzerland or Belgium)
  • Lack of student education

In conclusion

There is substantial overuse of some common procedures that demonstrate no benefit and present potential harm in everyday practice, say the authors of this article. In order to reduce over-medicalization and maintain physician commitment and public confidence, it is necessary to avoid using cost as a motivating factor, and instead focus on unnecessary tests that may be harmful.
EFIM launched two years ago a “Choosing Wisely” project involving twenty- six national societies of Internal Medicine. The aim of this project is, first of all, to stimulate the dissemination of the low-value, high-value care concepts and the top-five lists from participating countries; secondly, to start educational programs for physicians, educators, residents and students using practical courses and publications, and thirdly, to design research tools to evaluate the effects of Less is More approach on appropriateness of care and cost reduction.

Our opinion

The approach described in the paper specifically concerns medication prescribing practices; we hope that the reflection on over-screening will also be widely included in the European program to reduce overmedicalization.

At present, unfortunately, the issue of screening, particularly for breast cancer, is much less scientific than it is cultural, social and political. Financial and ideological stakes burden this screening.
The process of choosing wisely, in terms of these abusively so-called "preventive" procedures, risks being very long and going through a patient public education, unfortunately countered regularly by a medical populism that is more and more present, like the deplorable and terribly deleterious for the science itself image, which we witnessed during the Covid-19 epidemic.


[1] https://www.revmed.ch/RMS/2013/RMS-381/Less-is-more
[2] http://www.lessismoremedicine.com/blog/tag/choosing+wisely
[3] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-019-05050-2
[4] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/1754987
[5] https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h980.full
[6] https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/0003-4819-156-2-201201170-00011?doi=10.7326%2F0003-4819-156-2-201201170-00011&
[7] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2753.2008.01024.x
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1939859/
[9] https://cancer-rose.fr/2017/06/07/adhesion-des-medecins-aux-recommandations-sur-le-depistage-du-cancer-du-sein/
[10] https://cancer-rose.fr/2017/01/15/vue-densemble-des-directives-et-recommandations-sur-le-depistage-du-cancer-du-sein-pourquoi-les-recommandations-different/

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