I just returned from a thought-provoking conference at Dartmouth. Entitled Preventing Overdiagnosis: Winding Back the Harms of Too Much Care, and co-sponsored by Dartmouth University, British Medical Journal, Consumer Reports, and Australia’s Bond University, the conference raised many points that are rarely discussed.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“Risk factors have been turned into diseases.” Dr. Steve Woloshin discussed the absurdity of labeling us all with a “pre-disease”: doesn’t everyone all have some version of pre-hypertension, pre-diabetes, or even pre-death? More insidious is the promulgation of testing people who have no symptoms, despite of evidence of harm. American Cancer Society’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley discussed how hospitals offer “free” screening tests knowing that they will lead to false positives, thus creating a market for more testing and more care.
“Diseases are being created for the purpose of selling medications.” Dr. Lisa Schwartz told the story of how GlaxoSmithKline created a new disease entity—restless leg syndrome—to find a new use of a Parkinson’s disease medication that was about to go off patent. Roy Moynihan showed his class spoof video of a new and dangerous epidemic.
“Ordinary experience is medicalized.” Dr. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist and Chair of the DSM4 task force, rails against the psychiatric profession for labeling people with diseases they don’t have. If you are grieving two weeks after the death of a spouse, you have depressive disorder; if your child is inquisitive and energetic, he has attention deficit disorder. Of course, watchful waiting is never the solution, but fortunately, there is a new and expensive medication for this disease.
“Language corrupts thought.” A diagnosis of “carcinoma-in-situ” brings up scary connotations and fuels the desire for aggressive treatment. However, our technologies have gotten so advanced that we are detecting many early cancers that, if left alone, may never grow or harm the patient. The National Cancer Institute recently proposed a change in terminology for cancer, and other conference speakers proposed other disease definitions that should be changed.
“We are practicing faith-based medicine that ignores the harms and exaggerates the benefits.” It is well-documented that medical journals bias in favor of positive results, and that there are many financial interests to promote the newest, latest medication or treatment. Stories abound about people who survived because of early detection of disease and new, experimental treatment. However, there are also many stories of people who experience serious side effects and fatalities from overdiagnosis and overtreatment. These counternarratives need to be told, and evidence for harm needs to be published.
“Overdiagnosis is a symptom of the same problem that drives underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis.” In the discussion of overdiagnosis, it’s important not to forget that there are other pressing issues too, including medical error and lack of access to healthcare. The medical industrial complex is at fault here, too, and doctors need to assume our social responsibility and moral imperative to do what’s best for our patients.
“More care isn’t better care; it’s just more care.” In the words of my hero, cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Bernard Lown: “Overtreatment harms patients, thereby negating the first principle of doctoring, primum non nocere.” Our goal in medicine should be to do “as much as possible for the patient, as little as possible to the patient.”
There will be many challenges ahead for conference attendees, including the difficulty of framing and discussing the problems of overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Much of this conversation will continue at the Lown Institute's Right Care Alliance conference in December. My next few blog articles will address these difficulties. Stay tuned, and please feel free to contribute your thoughts below!