overdiagnosis

By now we are all familiar with the concept of overdiagnosis, where “we” is defined as “the readers of THCB and a few other people whose healthcare literacy is high enough to know when not to seek testing and/or when not to automatically believe the test results.”

The rest of the country hasn’t gotten the memo that, quite counter-intuitively, many suspected clinical problems should simply be left alone.  Many insignificant conditions get overdiagnosed and subsequently overtreated, at considerable cost to the health plans and risk to the patient.

For more information on that we  refer you to the book Overdiagnosed.   The thesis of that book is that insured Americans are far more likely to be harmed by too much care than too little.

Rather than use its resources and influence with human resources departments to mitigate overdiagnosis, most workplace wellness companies have opted for the reverse, taking overdiagnosis to a level which, were they physicians billing the government for this work, could cost them their licenses and possibly their freedom.   Instead, they win awards for it.

We call this new plateau of clinical unreality “hyperdiagnosis,” and it is the wellness industry’s bread-and-butter.  It differs from overdiagnosis four ways:  It is pre-emptive.  It is either negligently inaccurate or purposefully deceptive.  It is powered by pay-or-play forfeitures.  The final hallmark of hyperdiagnosis is braggadocio – wellness companies love to announce how many sick people they find in their screens.

1. Pre-Emptive

Most cases of overdiagnosis start at the doctor’s office, when a patient arrives to join the physician in a generally good faith search for a solution to a manifest problem.  The patient comes in need of testing.   By contrast, in hyperdiagnosis, there is neither a qualified medical professional providing adult supervision nor good faith.  The testing comes in need of patients, via annual workplace screening of up to seventy different lab values.  Testing for large numbers of abnormalities on large numbers of people guarantees large numbers of “findings,” clinically significant or not.  It is a shell game that the wellness vendor cannot lose.

2.Inaccurate or Deceptive

Most of these findings turn out to be clinically insignificant, no surprise given that the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening only for blood pressure, because otherwise the potential harms of screening outweigh the benefits.  The wellness industry knows this, and they also know that the book Seeking Sickness:  Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Diseasedemolishes their highly profitable screening business model.   (We are not cherry-picking titles here—there is no book Hey, I Have a Good Idea:  Let’s Hunt for Disease.)  And yet most wellness programs require annual screens to avoid a financial forfeiture.   This includes the four programs covered on THCB this year — CVS, Nebraska, British Petroleum, and Penn State.

Those four programs and most others also obsess with annual preventive doctor visits.  Like screening, though, annual “preventive” visits on balance cause more harm than good, according to academic and lay reports.  The wellness industry knows this as well.  We have posted it on their LinkedIn groups, and presumably they have also access to Google.  They addressed the data by banning us from their groups.

3. Pay-or-play forfeitures

Because of the lack of value, the inconvenience, and privacy concerns, most employees would not submit to a workplace screen if left to their own devices.  The wellness industry and their corporate customers “solve” that problem by tying large sums of money annually — $600 for hourly workers at CVS, $1200 at Penn State and $521 on average – to participation in these schemes.  Yet participation rates are still low.  At Penn State, for example, less than half of all employees got screened despite the large penalty.

Continue reading “Hyperdiagnosis: The Wellness Industry Doubles Down on Overdiagnosis”

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The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2009 call to action about chronic disease:  The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control.   On the summary page we learn some shocking statistics:

  • “Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.”

  • “About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.”

  • “More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.”

Shocking, that is, in how misleading or even false they are.  Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths,” for example.  We have to die of something.   Would it be better to die of accidents?  Suicides and homicides?  Mercury poisoning?   Infectious diseases?    As compared to the alternatives, it is much easier to make the argument that the first statistic is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

The second statistic is a head-scratcher.  Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009, meaning that 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2 adults,” live with at least one chronic illness — if their language is to be taken literally.   Our suspicion is that their “133-million Americans” figure includes children, and the CDC meant to say “133-millon Americans, including nearly 1 in 2 adults, live with at least one chronic illness.”   Sloppy wording is not uncommon at the CDC, as elsewhere they say almost 1 in 5 youth has a BMI  > the 95th percentile, which of course is mathematically impossible.

More importantly, the second statistic begs the question, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that half of us have at least one?    Are they counting back pain?   Tooth decay?  Dandruff?   Ring around the collar?    “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous.   For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease.   While likely preceded by chronic disease (such as hypertension or diabetes) and/or followed by a chronic ailment in its aftermath (such as hemiplegia or cardiac arrhythmias), a stroke itself is not a chronic disease no matter what the CDC says.  Indeed it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event.

They also count obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in June–and even then many people don’t accept that definition.   Cancer also receives this designation, even though most diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic – most diagnosed cancers either go into remission or cause death.    “Chronic disease” implies a need for and response to ongoing therapy and vigilance.  If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.”  And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”

Continue reading “The Biggest Urban Legend in Health Economics–and How It Drives Up Our Spending”

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We have become a pill popping society. It makes absolutely no sense that twenty percent of our population regularly uses a psychotropic medicine and that the United States has more deaths each year from overdose with prescription drugs than from street drugs.

The causes of excessive medication use are numerous- the diagnostic system is too loose; some doctors are trigger happy in their prescribing habits; the drug companies have sold a misleading bill of goods that all life’s problems are mental disorders requiring a pill solution; and the insurance companies make the mistake of encouraging quick diagnosis on the first visit.

My purpose here is to advise individuals on how best to deal with the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Elsewhere I have suggested the things government needs to do. A diagnosis, if accurate, can be the turning point to a much better life. A diagnosis, if inaccurate, can haunt you (perhaps for life) with unnecessary treatments and stigma.

Spend at least as much effort ensuring you have the right diagnosis as you would in buying a house. Become a fully informed consumer, ask lots of questions, and expect clear and convincing answers from any clinician who offers a diagnosis and recommends a treatment. If the diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit, get second or third opinions.

Never accept medication after receiving only a brief diagnostic evaluation, especially if it has been done by a primary care physician who may not be expert in psychiatry and may be too influenced by drug salesmen.

Don’t believe drug company advertisements that end with, ‘Ask your doctor.’ Drug companies profit if they can convince you that you have a psychiatric disorder and need medication. They portray the expectable problems of everyday life as mental illnesses due to a chemical imbalance because this sells pills and makes money- not to help you.

Continue reading “Getting Back to Normal”

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Medical care in the U.S. over-promises and under delivers. It costs about twice as much as in most other developed countries, but compared to them manages to produce only mediocre health outcomes. The profit motive has resulted in badly misallocated resources — too much testing and treatment for people who don’t need it and lousy access for many who do.

The impact of advances in medical science on the delivery of clinical care has also been over sold. The basic science revolution in medicine has indeed been brilliant, with powerful new tools yielding remarkable insights into how our bodies work. But translating this into better tests and treatments has been slow work and the practical benefits derived from all the brilliant science have been surprisingly disappointing.

There is a big disconnect between the daily enthusiastic reports of great new research results and the fact that treatment outcomes have improved only slowly and selectively. Clearest example — we have done a lot more to defeat cancer by dramatically reducing smoking than through the entire expensive forty year research war we have waged against it.

Certainly, we need to aggressively pursue medical research, but we also need to be realistic about the limits of our current understanding of disease processes and their treatment.

Continue reading “What Doctors Do When They Don’t Know What to Do”

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I remember going to see the movie “Oliver” in the theater when I was a kid.  Since this was my first movie in a theater, my mom made me a treat: a bag full of raisins and chocolate chips (Raisinets for Dutch people) and sent me there with my sister.  It was a fine film, with Oliver getting kicked out of the orphanage when he wanted more gruel, the dastardly Bill Sykes threatening Oliver and sweet Nancy, the funny and clever artful dodger and Fagan teaching Oliver about life on the street, and with (spoiler alert!) good overcoming evil in the end Oliver getting adopted by a rich dude so he can get all the gruel (or real Raisinets) that he wanted.  And though my memories of the movie are still vivid, my strongest memory was the look on my sister’s face when I walked out of the theater covered with melted chocolate chip goo.  It went into family lore (and wouldn’t have happened if they had sprung for Rasinets, I might add).  I think they still don’t trust me with chocolate chips.

The key line in the film comes when Oliver loses a bet and goes up to the gruel-master and says: “Please Sir, I want some more.”  Which, as I am sure Oliver expected, causes the gruel-master to break into the song, “Oliver! Oliver! Never before has a boy wanted more!” and the whole dining hall to pull out musical instruments and singing harmony to the gruel-master’s admonition.

I can see why Oliver was scared.  A whipping is welcome compared to his whole world breaking into song and dance.

Asking for “more” has caused trouble over the ages.  Adam and Eve wanted more food choices, the people of Pompeii wanted more mountain-side housing, Napoleon and Adolph Hitler wanted to spend more time in Russia, and America wanted more of the Kardashians. We can all see what destruction those desires reaped.

Americans have been viewing health care the same way, always wanting more: more antibiotics, more technology, more robots doing more surgery, more expensive treatments for more diseases.  The result: health care costs more in America than anywhere else.  Some folks think that our “more” approach makes our health care “the best in the world,” after all, where else can you get so many tests just by asking.  MRI’s for back pain, x-rays for coughs, blood tests for anyone who dons the door of the ER.  ”Tests for everyone!” shouts the bartender. “Tests are on the house! ”

Continue reading “Testing Wisely”

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The exponential growth in wellness programs indicates that Corporate America believes that medicalizing the workplace, through paying employees to participate in health risk assessments (“HRAs”) and biometric screens, will reduce healthcare spending.

It won’t. As shown in my book Why Nobody Believes the Numbers and subsequent analyses, the publicly reported outcomes data of these programs are made up—often to a laughable degree, starting with the fictional Safeway wellness success story that inspired the original Affordable Care Act wellness emphasis.  None of this should be a surprise:  in addition to HRAs and blood draws, wellness programs urge employees to go to the doctor, even though most preventive care costs more than it saves.  So workplace medicalization saves no money – indeed, it probably increases direct costs with these extra doctor visits – but all this medicalization at least should make a company’s workforce healthier.

Except when it doesn’t — and harms employees instead, which happens altogether too often.

Yes, you read that right.  While some health risk assessments just nag/remind employees to do the obvious — quit smoking, exercise more, avoid junk food and buckle their seat belts — many other HRAs and screens, from well-known vendors, provide blatantly incorrect advice that can potentially cause serious harm if followed.

Continue reading “Caution: Wellness Programs May Be Hazardous to Your Health”

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The New York Times had a cover story recently reporting on the estimated prevalence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health (they don’t identify the survey by name).

The story is going to get a lot of people interested in what is happening to children — every new datapoint on ADHD is noteworthy because it allows journalists to reopen the black box on childhood behavioral health disorders, and to raise the perennial alarm bells about over-diagnosis of children.

All of the issues raised in the article are valid. Many children with very mild impairments are getting a diagnosis, and enterprising drug companies are increasing demand for their product by implying that ADHD medications are a cure for generalized social impairments.

But — and this is critical – we have little systematic population-level data to compare the reported prevalence of a diagnosis with underlying data on ADHD symptoms in children. Continue reading “Inside the New Data on ADHD Diagnosis Rates”

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Many readers of my previous blog listing the 10 worst suggestions in DSM 5 were shocked that I failed to mention an 11th dangerous mistake — that DSM-5 will harm people who are medically ill by mislabeling their medical problems as mental disorder. They are absolutely right. I apologize for my previous failure to attend to this danger and hope it is not now too late to influence the process.

Adding to the woes of the medically ill could be one of the biggest problems caused by DSM-5. It will do this in two ways: 1) by encouraging a quick jump to the erroneous conclusion that someone’s physical symptoms are ‘all in the head’; and 2) by mislabeling as mental disorders what are really just the normal emotional reactions that people understandably have in response to a medical illness.

UK health advocate, Suzy Chapman, has closely monitored every step in the development of DSM-5. Her website is the best available resource for finding just about everything you need to know about DSM-5 and ICD-11. Ms Chapman sent me a troubling email that summarizes where DSM-5 has gone wrong and the many harmful consequences that will follow. More details are available at: ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder could capture millions more under mental health diagnosis’ (http://wp.me/pKrrB-29B )

Ms Chapman writes:

…The DSM-5 Somatic Symptom Disorders Work Group is planning to eliminate several little used DSM-IV Somatoform Disorders and replace them instead with an extremely broad new category that is likely to be wildly overused (‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ — SSD).

Continue reading “Mislabeling Medical Illness”

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Eric Topol wrote a post recently put up on THCB where he looks to a future enabled by emerging technology.

Just as the little mobile wireless devices radically transformed our day-to-day lives, so will such devices have a seismic impact on the future of health care. It’s already taking off at a pace that parallels the explosion of another unanticipated digital force — social networks.

Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed.

Now, I am the first to confess my infatuation with technology.  I am also a very big believer in patient empowerment, which could be the one force strong enough to overcome the partisan politicians and corporate lobbyists resisting any positive change.  But there are several problems I see with this kind of empowerment with technology.

First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place.  Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money.  Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible.  The technology mentioned in the article is predominantly data-gathering technology, increasing the amount of information moving from patient to physician.  The hope is that this will enable faster and better informed decisions, and perhaps some of it will.  But I can see harm coming out of this as well.

Continue reading “The Problem with Transformation”

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In case you missed it, a recommendation came out last month that physicians cut back on using 45 common tests and treatments. In addition, patients were advised to question doctors who recommend such things as antibiotics for mild sinusitis, CT scans for an uncomplicated headache or a repeat colonoscopy within 10 years of a normal exam.

The general idea wasn’t all that new — my colleagues and I have been questioning many of the same tests and treatments for years. What was different this time was the source of the recommendations. They came from the heart of the medical profession: the medical specialty boards and societies representing cardiologists, radiologists, gastroenterologists and other doctors. In other words, they came from the very groups that stand to benefit from doing more, not less.

Nine specialty societies contributed five recommendations each to the list (others are expected to contribute in the future). The recommendations each started with the word “don’t” — as in “don’t perform,” “don’t order,” “don’t recommend.”

Could American medicine be changing?

For years, medical organizations have been developing recommendations and guidelines focused on things doctors should do. The specialty societies have been focused on protecting the financial interests of their most profligate members and have been reluctant to acknowledge the problem of overuse. Maybe they are now owning up to the problem.

Continue reading “The Testing Glut”

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