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What if millions of medical diagnoses, procedures, and treatments were based on, at best, questionable scientific evidence, but still performed daily, the world over, in the name of saving patients lives or reducing their suffering? A new JAMA review indicates this may be exactly what is happening.
A concerning new review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association online ahead of print on the topic of overuse of medical care, i.e., health care for which "risk of harm exceeds its potential for benefit," finds that many commonly employed medical procedures, to which millions are subjected to each year, are based on questionable if not also, in some cases, non-existent evidence.
According to the review, which was co-authored by researchers from some of the country's most esteemed medical institutions, medical overuse can also be defined as a health care practice that patients would forego consenting to if fully informed. They elaborate further on the definition of medical overuse:
[Medical] Overuse encompasses overdiagnosis, which occurs when "individuals are diagnosed with conditions that will never cause symptoms," and overtreatment, which is treatment targeting overdiagnosed disease or from which there is minimal or no benefit."
Clearly, when information is lacking or withheld concerning the true risks and benefits of a medical procedure, the principle of informed consent is violated. And this is, no doubt, a far too common occurrence in today's medical landscape where market forces rather than scientific evidence drive the medical consensus that determines the standard of care. In fact, there is reason to believe that the published biomedical literature is so corrupted by industry influence, and publication bias, that the entire ivory tower of 'Evidence-Based Medicine,' which Kelly Brogan, MD, recently described as a House of Cards, is actually based on nothing more than a coin's flip worth of certainty.
But there is also the far more insidious problem of the misclassification and/or misunderstanding of disease which can mislead researchers, health care professionals, and their patients into performing and undergoing harmful procedures without anyone realizing the harmful and sometimes deadly consequences they have wrought.
For example, over the past eight years, we have identified what is essentially a vast, submerged iceberg of overdiagnosed and overtreated medical conditions, with the worst examples being common forms of breast, prostate, thyroid, and ovarian cancer. It was not until 2013 that the issue broke wide open, when a National Cancer Institute commissioned expert panel acknowledged that early-stage or 'stage zero' breast (DCIS) and prostate (HGPIN) "cancers" are actually benign or indolent lesions of epithelial origin and should never have been, and should never be, termed "carcinomas." Essentially, the NCI report revealed that millions have been wrongly diagnosed and treated for breast and prostate cancers over the past few decades that they never had. In the case of DCIS, about 1.3 million U.S. women were subjected to some combination of either mastectomy, lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy over the past 30 years, even though their screen-detected condition had no symptoms, and left untreated would likely never have caused them any harm. And this does not even account for the radiobiological harms caused by x-ray mammography, which may have planted the seeds of malignancy into the healthy breasts of millions of women in the name of "prevention through early detection."
The new study, titled "Update on Medical Practices That Should Be Questioned in 2015," reviewed 910 articles published in 2014, of which 440 directly addressed medical overuse. 104 of these were selected as "most relevant," with the 10 most influential articles selected by author consensus, and forming the basis for their 10-topic critique, which is divided into three sections: overdiagnosis, overtreatment, and methods to avoid medical overuse.
Asymptomatic Carotid Stenosis: Colloquially known as "blocked or restricted arteries in the neck," carotid artery stenosis often presents with no symptoms (asymptomatic), and yet is routinely treated with carotid angioplasty and stenting (placing a balloon or stent within the artery to open it) or surgical endarterectomy (removal of the inner lining of the artery and obstructive deposits found there) as "precautionary measures." The review referenced a systematic review and meta-analysis by the US Preventive Services Task Force that found no studies providing data on whether screening for carotid stenosis reduced stroke. What was found is that carotid ultrasonography screening leads to many false-positives; a finding that I believe, contributes to increased morbidity and mortality in screened populations.
Screening Pelvic Examinations Are Inaccurate in Asymptomatic Women and Are Associated With Harms That Exceed Clinical Benefits. Pelvic examination is often included in annual preventive visits for women and usually consists of both visual examination and the insertion of the hand and instruments like a speculum in the vagina. This soft-tissue evaluation includes the upper genital tracts, as well as urethra, bladder, and rectum. Amazingly, a cited review found no studies assessing the effect of pelvic examinations on morbidity or mortality from cancers (including ovarian cancers) or benign gynecological conditions. Moreover, it was found that the harms of screening include "discomfort, anxiety, psychological effects, embarrassment, and unnecessary procedures, including surgery (1.4% [29 of 2000] of women in one study)." The review opined strongly about the study implications: "Do not perform screening pelvic examinations. Clinicians should educate female patients about the low value of the examination. This review informed a new guideline from the American College of Physicians recommending against routine pelvic examinations for screening asymptomatic women." Given the lack of evidence supporting pelvic examinations, could the practice be considered just another form of the violation of women by medical care providers, not unlike unnecessary C-sections?
Head Computed Tomography Is Often Ordered but Is Rarely Helpful: Computer tomography uses ionizing radiation and sometimes a contrasting agent in diagnosis, both of which have significant potential to cause adverse health effects. Often CT scans produce incidental, and clinically unimportant findings, and will lead to additional CT scans being ordered. The review concluded, "A second head CT scan rarely affects patient management. Clinicians should be judicious in ordering multiple CT scans in the same patient." Consider also, that a study published in the NEJM in 2007 estimated that .4% of all cancers in the US may be attributable to CT scans!
Thyroid Cancer Is Massively Overdiagnosed, Leading to Concrete Harms: In the past 30 years, there has been a global increase in the implementation of thyroid cancer screening programs which have lead to dramatically increased rates of diagnosis of "thyroid cancer," mostly due to papillary carcinomas, which are non-fatal. Thyroid cancer mortality rates remained the same throughout this period, a clear indication of overdiagnosis, i.e. the thyroid lesions were non-cancerous insofar as they would have never caused harm if left untreated. The review cited a new study that reviewed the 15-fold increase in thyroid cancer in South Korean, from 1993 to 2011, concluding that, "Overdiagnosis of thyroid cancer is extremely common. The harms associated with this overtreatment include lifelong thyroid replacement, hypoparathyroidism, and vocal cord paralysis." Learn more by reading my article, "Thyroid Cancer Epidemic Caused by Misinformation, Not Cancer."