Health screening is part of good preventive care, though over-screening can lead to increased costs, and potential patient harm. Healthcare professional societies have recently developed excellent public service announcements describing the dangers of over-testing, and new research suggests that though additional medical interventions are associated with increased patient satisfaction, they also lead (ironically) to higher mortality rates.
And so, in a system attempting to shift to a “less is more” model of healthcare, why is resistance so strong? When the USPSTF recommended against the need for annual, screening mammograms in healthy women (without a family history of breast cancer) between the ages of 40-49, the outcry was deafening. Every professional society and patient advocacy group rallied against the recommendation, and generally not much has changed in the breast cancer screening world. I myself tried to follow the USPSTF guidelines – and opted out of a screening mammogram for two full years past 40. And then I met a charming radiologist at a women’s medical conference who nearly burst into tears when I told her that I hadn’t had a mammogram. Her lobbying for me to “just make sure I was ok” was so passionate that I simply could no longer resist the urge to get screened.
I knew going into the test that there was a reasonably high chance of a false positive result which could cause me unnecessary anxiety. That being said, I was still emotionally unprepared for the radiologists’ announcement that the mammogram was “abnormal” and that a follow up ultrasound needed to be scheduled. I must admit that I did squirm until I had more information. In the end, the “abnormality” proved to be simple “dense breast tissue” and I was pleased to have at least dodged an unnecessary biopsy or lumpectomy. Did my screening do me any good? No, and some psychological harm. A net/net negative but without long term sequelae.
My next personal wrestling match with screening tests was the colonoscopy. I was seeing a gastroenterologist for some GI complaints, and we weren’t 5 minutes into our conversation before he recommended a colonoscopy. I argued that I was too young for a screening colonoscopy (I was 42 and they are recommended starting at age 50), and therefore was doubtful that anything too helpful would be found with the test. My suggestion was that a careful history and some blood testing might be the first place to start. My gastroenterologist acquiesced reluctantly.
As it turns out the blood testing was non-diagnostic and my symptoms persisted so I agreed to the colonoscopy. In this case I felt it was reasonable to do it since it was for diagnostic (not screening) purposes. I was quite certain that it would reveal nothing – or perhaps a false positive followed by anxiety, like my mammogram.
What it did show was some polyps that had a 50% chance of becoming malignant colon cancer in the next 10 years. I was shocked. If I had waited until I was 50 to start screening, I could have missed my cure window. The uneasiness about screening guidelines began to sink in. As a physician I had done my best to apply screening guidelines to myself and resist the urge to over-test, even with a healthy dose of natural curiosity. Yet I failed to resist screening, and in fact, my life was possibly saved by a test that was not supposed to be on my preventive health radar for another 8 years.
Screening tests are recommended for those who are most likely to benefit, and physicians and patients alike are encouraged to avoid unnecessary testing. But there are always a few people outside the “most likely to benefit” pool whose lives could be saved with screening, and the urge to make sure that’s not you – or your patient – is incredibly strong. I’m not sure if that’s human nature, or American culture. But a quick review of Hollywood blockbuster plots (where tens of thousands of lives are regularly sacrificed to save one princess/protagonist/hero from the aliens/monsters/zombies) testifies to our desperately irrational tendencies.
I am now biased towards over-testing, because my emotional relief at dodging a bullet is stronger than my cerebral desire to adhere to population-based recommendations. Knowing this, I will still try to avoid the temptation to over-test and over-treat my patients. But if they so much as hint that they’d like an early colonoscopy – I will cave.
Does that make me a bad doctor?
The internet is full of colon cleansing methods that tout the benefits of colon detox. I saw one website that showed long “worms” that live for years in the colon that “need” to be removed with special expensive potions. One of the most common questions for GI doctors is about colon cleansing and if it is beneficial. I don’t know any physicians who believe the colon needs “detoxification” or special cleansing, but until now I didn’t have a scientific way to answer that question from patients.
A study from the Am J. Gastroenterology now gives us the answer. The study authors looked at all relevant articles published between 1966 and 2008. They blinded the articles and measured outcomes and adverse events. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*
by Steve Perry, MD
I recently read a post by Dr. Bob Sears which listed several “Vaccine Friendly Doctors” in Colorado and across the nation.
As a pediatrician and vaccine advocate, I thought I’d be on this list. I am “vaccine-friendly doctor” who works with moms and dads to find the best health care plan for their babies. I read the information on both sides of the issue and weighed the science against the emotional worry that so many parents feel about vaccines. While I always recommend vaccination by the CDC schedule, I always listen to parents concerns.
But, much to my surprise, I was not on this list. After a looking closer, I found that those on the list are a small population of physicians that are “friendly” to the “alternative” or delayed vaccine schedule outlined in Dr. Sears’ The Vaccine Book. The delayed vaccine schedule calls for a drawn-out vaccine plan based on Dr. Sears’ beliefs on calming parental vaccine fears. This delayed schedule has no research or science backing it, it is simply one pediatrician’s opinion.
The biggest medical problem with the delayed schedule is that it leaves babies open to disease for a longer period of time. If a baby is vaccinated by the CDC’s tried, tested and true vaccine schedule, that baby will have immunity to over 14 diseases by the age of two! With the CDC recommended schedule, babies visit their doctor five times in the first 15 months and receive protection against up to 14 diseases in as little as 18 shots if using combination vaccines, or as many as 26 shots if using individual antigens.
We immunize children so young against these diseases because infancy is the time period that kids are MOST vulnerable to life-threatening diseases. The people at greatest risk of dying from vaccine-preventable disease are the very young and the very old. We vaccinate to save lives.
On the delayed schedule, by 15 months of age children will have only received immunity against eight diseases. They miss out on measles, rubella, chickenpox, Hep A, and Hep B. By 15 months, children on this delayed schedule are given 17 shots and visit the doctor’s office 9 times – almost twice as many visits to the doctor as the CDC schedule.
Beyond Dr. Sears advocating for a medically untested vaccine schedule, I was dismayed at his classification of physicians like myself who vaccinate according to the CDC schedule. Because we follow the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC’s vaccine guidelines we are “unfriendly” doctors? Because I am following the science of my colleagues I am an “unfriendly” doctor?
This type of misinformation is damaging to families and physicians. It is the power of words that plant seeds of doubt in the minds of parents to fear vaccines. It’s this misleading information that manipulates parents into feeling that they are bad parents if they don’t question the safety and validity of vaccines.
As a pediatrician, I know it can be confusing for parents who get so much information about vaccines every day online and on TV. We all want to be informed advocates for our children’s health. Reading a balance of both sides allows parents to make an informed choice.
The best place to start the conversation about vaccines is with your pediatrician or by reading reputable sites like the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition at www.childrensimmunization.org. This non-profit does not accept donations from pharmaceutical companies and works to improve childhood vaccination rates across Colorado.
The reason I became a pediatrician was to protect children from illness and disease. Dr. Bob may only define “vaccine-friendly doctors” as those who promote his book, but the overwhelming data on the effectiveness and safety of vaccination makes it easy for us all to become a vaccine-friendly community. I hope that parents take time to read information on both sides of the issue, brings their questions to their physician and makes fully informed decisions about their child’s health.
Steve Perry is a pediatrician at Cherry Creek Pediatrics in Denver, Colorado and co-chair of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition’s Policy Committee.
*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*