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Administration Censors Statements On Controversial Scientific Issues

A New York Times Magazine story published on the newspaper’s website on Wednesday details the complicated history of screening for prostate cancer in the U.S. and revisits the related story of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force meeting that was abruptly cancelled for political reasons on November 1, 2010, the day before the midterm Congressional elections. I was interviewed several times for this story, starting shortly after my resignation from my position at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, where for 4 years I had supported the USPSTF’s scientific activities on a wide range of topics.

I commend science journalists Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer for their tireless reporting efforts and dogged persistence in pursuing the real reason for the meeting’s cancellation, despite repeated and vigorous denials of senior government officials. Former USPSTF Chairman Ned Calonge confirms in the Times story that politics played a role: “In November 2010, just before midterm elections, the task force was again set to review its [prostate screening] recommendation when Calonge canceled the meeting. He says that word leaked out that if the November meeting was held, it could jeopardize the task force’s financing.” It’s true that several members of Congress had threatened to cut off funding for the Task Force after it recommended against routine mammography for women in their 40s. To the best of my knowledge, however, the order to cancel the meeting came directly from the White House, not Congress. And according to my superiors at the time, Dr. Calonge had no choice in the matter. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*

The Consequences Of The 2008 Change In PSA Screening Recommendations

Flashback to summer of 2008. I’m looking forward to August 5–the day that I’ll no longer be a faceless bureaucrat. The day that the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) will issue its new recommendations on screening for prostate cancer–recommendations I’ve labored on as a federal employee for the past year and a half.

For much of 2007 I combed the medical literature for every study I could find on the benefits and harms of prostate cancer screening. In November of that year I presented my findings to the USPSTF, a widely respected, independent panel of primary care experts. They discussed and debated what the evidence showed and then voted unanimously to draft new recommendations. I didn’t get to vote, but it has been my job in 2008 to shepherd the draft statement and literature review through an intensive vetting process and to finalize both.

As August 5 approaches, my colleagues in public relations warn me that the last time the USPSTF said anything about prostate cancer screening, the phones started ringing off the hook. I’m not so secretly hoping that the same will happen this time.

And I’m not disappointed! After we release the statement, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*

The Importance Of Shared Decision-Making In Health Care Discussions

In a comment left on my blog, Jamie Bearse, the chief operating officer of Project Zero – The Project to End Prostate Cancer, showed how quickly and deeply discussions about screening tests can devolve into ugly rhetoric. Bearse wrote:

“Your comments along with Otis Brawley’s vendetta against the PSA sentence men to die from prostate cancer testing. Shame on you. It’s important to know your score to make a proper diagnosis and decision of if and how to treat prostate cancer. Groups that create screening guidelines for cancer such as American Urological Association and National Comprehensive Cancer Network say get tested. In fact, Brawley is at odds with his own organization. ACS supports testing as well. Otis Brawley has killed more men by giving them an excuse to not be tested. Don’t follow that path just because of your own bad experience.”

I responded:


My comments policy states that I will delete comments that make personal attacks. You certainly did that with your statement that the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society “has killed” and that he has “sentenced men to die.”

Nonetheless I have posted your comment because I think it’s important for other readers to see how some pro-screening rhetoric so quickly and completely devolves into ugliness.

YOU ARE WRONG Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Medical News Stories: Beware Of Insufficient Evidence

After seeing the NBC Nightly News last night, a physician urged me to write about what he saw: a story about a “simple blood test that could save women’s lives.”

Readers – and maybe especially TV viewers – beware whenever you hear a story about “a simple blood test.”

And this is a good case in point.

Brian Williams led into the story stating:

“Two of three women who die suddenly of cardiac heart disease have no previous symptoms which is all the more reason women may want to ask their doctors about a blood test that can be a lifesaver.”

Then NBC News chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman said:

“It’s not a new test, it’s not an experimental test but nonetheless it’s a test not a lot of people know about and that’s a problem because this simple blood test could save your life.”

The test in question is Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

How Much Taxpayer Money Is Spent On Unnecessary Procedures?

“Doctors, with the consent of their patients, should be free to provide whatever care they agree is appropriate. But when the procedure arising from that judgment, however well intentioned, is not supported by evidence, the nation’s taxpayers should have no obligation to pay for it.”

So argues Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, in a provocative op-ed published in the New York Times. She writes that Medicare “spends a fortune each year on procedures that have no proven benefit and should not be covered” and offers the following examples:

“Medicare pays for routine screening colonoscopies in patients over 75 even though the United States Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts financed by the Department of Health and Human Services, advises against them (and against any colonoscopies for patients over 85), because it takes at least eight years to realize any benefits from the procedure.”

“The task force recommends against screening for prostate cancer in men 75 and older, and screening for cervical cancer in women 65 and older who have had a previous normal Pap smear, but Medicare spent more than Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Latest Interviews

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It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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