Yesterday, but the U.S. Treatment Services Task Force announced that leeches aren’t a particularly good treatment for most ailments. While noting that leeches might still be useful for certain specific circulation disorders, the USTSTF recommended against their use in other situations, like treating fever and abdominal pains.
Although the Task Force has no power to make anyone do anything, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich) was heard on NPR’s Morning Edition saying, “Some people discounted the idea that the government would actually put people to death … this actually is really showing how the insidious encroachment of government between the patient and their doctor plays out.” Camp neglected to address the facts: (1) overuse of leeches is expensive, and science-based recommendations about appropriate use would save the government money without harming patients, and (2) bloodletting can lead to negative side effects, such as upsetting the body’s natural humoral balance.
Widespread concern of regular citizens that leeches would no longer be offered by their doctors, was shared by industry leaders. “I am deeply concerned about the actions of the USTSTF in severely limiting access to leeches. These recommendations, in combination with recent Medicare cuts to leech reimbursement, jeopardizes access to both long proven and cutting-edge bloodletting technologies,” stated James H. Thrall, M.D., FACR, Chair of the American College of Bloodletting Board of Chancellors. Dr. Thrall neglected to note that the USTSTF did not limit access to anything, and merely made a recommendation.
Fortunately, the Secretary of Health and Human Services rushed to the microphone to pledge for the record that there would be no changes to Medicare or Medicaid coverage while she was on the job. “My message to patients is simple. Leeches have always been an important life-saving tool in the fight against pretty much any sickness they still are today. Keep doing what you have been doing for years — talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions, and make the decision that is right for you.”
Few commentators highlighted the rigorous science-based process of the USTSTF, the evidence against leech use in most cases, and the harms caused by the excessive use of leeches to treat illnesses ranging from halitosis to flatulence.
Aron Boros is a lawyer and health policy analyst in Boston, Massachusetts.