The One Word That Can Save Your Life: No!

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, August 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

The One Word That Can Save Your Life: No!


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Stents. Knee surgery. Even the omnipresent MRI. New research shows how some common tests and procedures aren't just expensive, but can do more harm than good.

Dr. Stephen Smith, Professor emeritus of family medicine at Brown University School of Medicine, tells his physician not to order a PSA blood test for prostate cancer or an annual electrocardiogram to screen for heart irregularities, since neither test has been shown to save lives. Rather, both tests frequently find innocuous quirks that can lead to a dangerous odyssey of tests and procedures. Dr. Rita Redberg, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and editor of the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine, has no intention of having a screening mammogram even though her 50th birthday has come and gone. That's the age at which women are advised to get one. But, says Redberg, they detect too many false positives (suspicious spots that turn out, upon biopsy, to be nothing) and tumors that might regress on their own, and there is little if any evidence that they save lives.

These physicians are not anti-medicine. They are not trying to save money on their copayments or deductibles. And they are not trying to rein in the nation's soaring health-care costs, which at $2.7 trillion account for fully one sixth of every dollar spent in the U.S. They are applying to their personal lives a message they have become increasingly vocal about in their roles as biomedical researchers and doctors: more health care often means worse health. "There are many areas of medicine where not testing, not imaging, and not treating actually result in better health outcomes," Redberg says. In other words, "less is more." Archives, which is owned by the American Medical Association, has been publishing study after study about tests and treatments that do more harm than good.

That less health care can lead to better health and, conversely, that more health care can harm health, runs counter to most patients' conviction that screenings and treatments are inherently beneficial. That belief is fueled by the flood of new technologies and drugs that have reached the market in the past two or three decades, promising to prevent disease and extend life. Most of us wouldn't think twice if our doctor offered a test that has the power to expose a lurking tumor, or a clogged artery, or a heart arrhythmia. Better to know--and get treated--than to take any risks, the reasoning goes.

In fact, for many otherwise healthy people, tests often lead to more tests, which can lead to interventions based on a possible problem that may have gone away on its own or ultimately proved harmless. Patients can easily be fooled when a screening test detects, or an intervention treats, an abnormality, and their health improves, says cardiologist Michael Lauer of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. In fact, says Lauer, that abnormality may not have been the cause of the problem or a threat to future health: "All you've done is misclassify someone with no disease as having disease."

From PSA tests for prostate cancer (which more than 20 million U.S. men undergo every year) to surgery for chronic back pain to simple antiobiotics for sinus infection, a remarkable number and variety of tests and treatments are now proving either harmful or only as helpful as a placebo.

This realization comes at a time when Medicare has emerged as a fat target in the debate over taming the deficit, with politicians proposing to slash costs by raising the age of eligibility or even eliminating the program. Experts estimate that the U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year on medical procedures that provide no benefit or a substantial risk of harm, suggesting that Medicare could save both money and lives if it stopped paying for some common treatments. "There's a reason we spend almost twice as much per capita on health care [as other developed countries] with no gain in health or longevity," argues Dr. …

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