Recently, the US Preventative Services Task Force reiterated its recommendation that women not undergo routine screening for ovarian cancer. This was remarkable, not simply because it was a recommendation against screening, but because the task force was making the recommendation again, and this time even stronger.
The motivation for the recommendation was simple: a review of years’ worth of data indicates that most women are more likely to suffer harm because of false alarms than they are to benefit from early detection. These screenings are a hallmark of population medicine—an archetypal form of medicine that does not attempt to distinguish one individual from another. Moving beyond the ritualistic screening procedures could help reduce the toll of at least $765 billion of wasted health care costs per year.
We already know the common changes in the DNA sequence that identify people who have higher risk of developing ovarian, breast or prostate cancer and most other types of cancer. Consumers can now readily obtain this information via personal genomic companies like 23andMe or Pathway Genomics. But we need to do much more DNA sequencing to find the less common yet even more important variations—those which carry the highest risk of a particular cancer. Such research would be easy to accomplish if it were given top priority and it would likely lead to precision screening. Only a small fraction of individuals would need to have any medical screening. What’s more, it will protect hundreds of thousands of Americans from being unnecessarily harmed each year.
Dr. Timothy Wilt, a member of the United States Preventive Services Task Force, stood in front of the American Urological Association audience and explained why the task force could not recommend that men undergo routine PSA screening. At most, he explained, the test had been shown to benefit one out of 1000 men. Meanwhile, the test would cause hundreds of men to experience anxiety, and scores of them to experience impotence and incontinence from unnecessary treatments.
Twenty minutes later, I stood behind the same podium and asked the audience members to raise their hands if they disagreed with the task force’s conclusion. Ninety percent expressed their skepticism. What happened in the time between Wilt’s presentation and mine reveals a great deal about why experts cannot agree whether screening tests, like the PSA in middle-age men or mammograms in 40-year-old women, bring more benefit than harm, and about what psychological forces impede our ability, as a society, to figure out what basic bundle of healthcare services all insurance companies ought to pay for.
Wilt’s presentation was a model of scientific clarity. He explained that only two randomized clinical trials were conducted with enough scientific rigor to provide useful estimates of whether the PSA test saves lives. One trial showed no benefit and the other revealed the one in 1000 number which the task force took as the best case scenario. Wilt was followed on stage by Ruth Etzioni, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Etzioni presented a statistical model suggesting that the PSA test benefited many more than one in 1000 men.
The numbers are stark. According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, for every man whose death from prostate cancer is prevented through PSA screening, 40 become impotent or suffer incontinence problems, two have heart attacks and one a blood clot. Then there’s the psychological harm of a “false positive” test result, which is 80 percent of all “positive” tests. They lead to unnecessary worry, follow-up biopsies, physical discomfort and even harm. Final grade: D.
Three men close to me have been diagnosed with prostate cancer late in life. Each was around 70. My dad, already in throes of advancing Alzheimer’s disease, did what the doctor ordered (actually, I suspect my mom told my dad to do what the doctor ordered). He had surgery. And for the last six years of his life, which until his final three months was at home, she cleaned up after him because of his incontinence. My neighbor made the same choice. He quietly admitted to me one day that he suffers from similar symptoms, but he is grateful because he believes his life was saved by the operation. And my friend Arnie? I’ve written about him in this space before. He was diagnosed at 70, and being a psychiatrist with a strong sense of his own sexual being, understood the potential tradeoffs. He decided to forgo treatment. He died a few years ago at 90. I never learned the cause.
So what does it mean that PSA testing gets a D rating?
On April 17th, 81-year-old Warren Buffett told investors that he had very early prostate cancer. The Washington Post headline read: “Warren Buffett Has Prostate Cancer that is Not Remotely Life Threatening.’” Within hours, news accounts said that the story unfolded after discovering a high PSA in a routine appointment. Next, he had a prostate biopsy. A few hours later, news accounts said that Buffett decided to get radiation therapy for prostate cancer. What’s wrong with this picture?
10. He’s an icon who other men will follow, and there is limited (or no) evidence of benefit of aggressive treatment in men as old as Buffett. At 81, his life expectancy is 7.41 years, shy of the 10-year life expectancy mark doctors look for when they recommend aggressive treatment for prostate cancer.
9. Although Buffett can afford whatever care he so desires, it would cost a fortune if tons of men in his age group went for active treatment and there would be little yield and plenty of side effects.
In the last month, the Obama administration announced programs to reduce racial disparities and increase prevention in health care. Neither program was funded with actual money, so they are about political showmanship as much as any real desire to tackle the worthy causes. After all, who would oppose such programs? I half-expect the administration to follow-up these announcements with one focusing on moms and apple pie.
But have a closer look at what Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin said at the press conference introducing the latter initiative. “For every dollar we invest in prevention, we save $6. We need to provide an approach that makes it easier to be healthy and harder to be unhealthy.”
I haven’t found the report on which Harkin bases his assertion about the returns on health prevention efforts, but my sense is its more complicated than Harkin would have us believe. Some screening and prevention programs are not effective at all. Others are effective, but prohibitively expensive. Any national program to improve prevention needs to evaluate each potential component to assure it reflects Harkin’s focus on cost-effectiveness.