In some cases, studies show that the test or treatment is costly but does not improve the quality of care for the patient, according to the groups.
But in many cases, the groups contend, the intervention could cause pain, discomfort or even death. For example, feeding tubes are often used to provide sustenance to dementia patients who cannot feed themselves, even though oral feeding is more effective and humane. And CT scans that are commonly used when children suffer minor head trauma may expose them to cancer-causing radiation.
While the recommendations are aimed in large part at physicians, they are also designed to arm patients with more information in the exam room.
"If you're a healthy person and you're having a straightforward surgery, and you get a list of multiple tests you need to have, we want you to sit down and talk with your doctor about whether you need to do these things," said John Santa, director of the health rating center at Consumer Reports, which is part of the coalition that created the guidelines.
Health-care spending in the United States has reached 17.9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product and continues to rise, despite efforts to contain costs. U.S. health-care spending grew 3.9 percent in 2011, reaching $2.7 trillion, according to the journal Health Affairs.