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Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health Hardcover – January 18, 2011
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*Starred Review* Health policy expert Welch’s assertions about the benefits of some of modern medicine’s most popular diagnostic screening tools are unlikely to ingratiate him with many people. He claims that overdiagnosis “is the biggest problem posed by modern medicine,” and backs that assertion up with a barrage of facts, charts, and graphs. This is information, he says, that is downplayed or simply ignored by individuals and groups promoting the notion that earlier diagnosis—whether for prostate cancer or diabetes—translates to better health. Indeed, Welch says, just the converse is more often true. In an overwhelming number of circumstances, early diagnosis turns healthy, asymptomatic people into patients who require a variety of medical interventions with no benefit, even exposing them to unnecessary harm. Worse, overdiagnosis can render perfectly healthy people uninsurable. Furthermore, instead of lowering health-care costs, all those scans, screenings, and tests actually raise costs by overtreating people who will never benefit from said treatment. His point is that both physicians and patients need to be skeptical and understand all the data (pro and con) surrounding prescreening for possible illness. Welch speaks his truth with a frankness and clarity scant found in today’s hysteria over medical prescreening. --Donna Chavez
"Overdiagnosed —albeit controversial—is a provocative, intellectually stimulating work. As such, all who are involved in health care, including physicians, allied health professionals, and all current or future patients, will be well served by reading and giving serious thought to the material presented."─ JAMA
“Everyone should read this book before going to the doctor! Welcome evidence that more testing and treatment is not always better.”─ Susan Love, MD, author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book
“This book makes a compelling case against excessive medical screening and diagnostic testing in asymptomatic people. Its important but underappreciated message is delivered in a highly readable style. I recommend it enthusiastically for everyone.”─ Arnold S. Relman, MD, editor-in-chief emeritus, New England Journal of Medicine, and author of A Second Opinion: Rescuing America’s Health Care
“This stunning book will help you and your loved ones avoid the hazards of too much health care. Within just a few pages, you’ll be recommending it to family and friends, and, hopefully, your local physician. If every medical student read Overdiagnosed, there is little doubt that a safer, healthier world would be the result.”─ Ray Moynihan, conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle, visiting editor of the British Medical Journal, and author of Selling Sickness
“An ‘overdiagnosis’ is a label no one wants: it is worrisome, it augurs ‘overtreatment,’ and it has no potential for personal benefit. This elegant book forewarns you. It also teaches you how and why to ask, ‘Do I really need to know this?’ before agreeing to any diagnostic or screening test. A close read is good for your health.”─ Nortin M. Hadler, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Worried Sick and The Last Well Person
“We’ve all been made to believe that it is always in people’s best interest to try to detect health problems as early as possible. Dr. Welch explains, with gripping examples and ample evidence, how those who have been overdiagnosed cannot benefit from treatment; they can only be harmed. I hope this book will trigger a paradigm shift in the medical establishment’s thinking.” —Sidney Wolfe, MD, author of Worst Pills, Best Pills and editor of WorstPills.org
Top customer reviews
This book is insightful, although the writing is lackluster. It's very boring. The author uses charts to prove his point, making this more like a text book than pleasurable reading. This book is great for reference but not something you'd read for pleasure. I found the information helpful and kept this book for future reference.
Welch provides readers with four important and generalizable points. The first is that, while target guidelines are set by panels of experts, those experts bring with them biases and sometimes even monetary incentives from drug-makers, etc. Over the past decades many target levels have been changed (eg. blood pressure, cholesterol levels, PSA levels), dramatically increasing the number classified as having a particular condition. (Welch adds that prostate cancer can be found at any PSA level - about 8% for those with a PSA level of 1 or less, over 30% for those with a level exceeding 4; most are benign.)
The second is that treating those with eg. severe hypertension benefits those patients much more than treating those with very mild hypertension or 'prehypertension;' the result is treating those with lesser 'symptoms' can easily cause new problems that outweigh the value of the hypertension treatment.
The third is that Welch believes it is usually more important to treat those with disease symptoms (eg. pain) than those without. For example, almost 70% of men 60-69 have prostate cancer, as well as about 10% of those aged 20-29 - a large number are better left untreated because their particular cases involve a very slow-growing form and the side-effects of treatment outweigh the benefits. Welch also reports that a study of over 1,000 symptom-free people that underwent total-body CT screens found 86% had at least one detected abnormality, with an average of 2.8. Many of these abnormalities later disappear (some cancers disappear), while others grow very slowly, if at all. Providing unneeded treatment subjects patients to unneeded pain, risk of adverse outcomes (including death), and unneeded expense.
Examples: Welch cites the example of a mildly hypertensive older man that he treated; unfortunately, while shoveling snow the individual passed out from a combination of sweating and the diuretic prescribed for his high blood pressure. Welch discontinued the man's medication. Similarly, Dr. Welch treated a patient with mild diabetes - the result was she fainted from low blood sugar (the level fluctuates around a mean) while driving just after a meal and was severely injured in an accident. Dr. Welch discontinued her medication as well.
Meanwhile, at the same time that a number of target guidelines have been tightened, the availability and capability of scanning and other detection devices to find abnormalities has also increased. For example, since the early 1990s, Welch tells us that the Medicare per capita use of head scans has doubled, the rates of abdominal scans have tripled, chest scans quintupled, brain MRI rates quadrupled, etc. New biopsy methods for detecting prostate cancer (eg. sampling from 18 points rather than 12 or fewer) also increase the number of benign 'false-positive' diagnoses, probably much more so than true positives.
Why is there so much testing? Dr. Welch attributes it to well-meaning disease advocacy groups, testimonials (eg. ex-Senator Dole regarding his prostate cancer), quality-improvement efforts that include testing as one of their criteria, malpractice awards, hospital/specialist/drug company marketing (beware of these, says Welch), and honest disagreement over its value. He's also concerned about what lower-cost DNA testing will add to the overdiagnosis problem, contending that everyone's genes will reveal heightened susceptibility to some ailments and diseases, with little that can be done despite the knowledge. The author would probably also be concerned about new Medicare requirements to provide a battery of up to 45 medical tests ("The Wall Street Journal" - 1/18/2011). That article also reports that a "New England Journal of Medicine" review of hundreds of preventive-care studies showed that fewer than 20% saved money.
Bottom-Line: Dr. Welch raises an important topic for improving health care while reducing costs. His main recommendation, more data from clinical trials showing the outcomes of choosing one diagnosing standard/method over another, is important and appropriate.
I have worked in the medical field off and on over the years, and even worked on a prostate cancer project, so I already knew a fair bit about the prostate cancer screening/treatment debate. I learned even more from Dr. Welch.
One question that I have had for years, and that has never been answered to my satisfaction is:
If a person is being treated for cancer, and they die from the treatment (on the operating table, from the drugs/radiation, etc.), do they count in the "deaths from cancer" statistic? I personally have known many more people who died from the treatment itself than who died from the cancer, and yet that particular topic does not get addressed. Are death rates from prostate cancer (for instance) holding steady because the treatments don't work, or because men are dying from unnecessary treatment and that offsets the successful treatments? (I did notice that the death rates for prostate cancer went *up* with an increase in detection in the figure on page 56.)
Statistics are smoky, and it really helps to know more about the study design. Dr. Welch does a very good job of describing the various studies, and their flaws and strengths. I'm sure it is a huge hot potato to discuss death rates from treatment, but I would be very interested in seeing those numbers broken out.
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