Monday, April 24, 2017

Safety net doesn't protect patients from low-value care

During my residency training and for parts of my career, I practiced in several "safety net" clinics, defined as clinics that serve a patient population where at least 25% have no health insurance or are insured with Medicaid. As family physicians who work in these settings well know, resources are often limited, and arranging for patients to receive necessary care at an affordable price can be a major challenge.

While on telephone hold one day for the umpteenth prior authorization request for a medication my patient had been taking for years, I remember consoling myself that at least these maddening financial constraints provided protection against low-value care. Unlike the concierge practice on the other side of town, I couldn't get patients with acute low back pain into a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner the next day or order huge panels of unnecessary laboratory tests at health maintenance exams.

As it turned out, my perception was more myth than reality. In a recent cross-sectional analysis of national survey data on nearly 200,000 office visits from 2005 to 2013, Dr. Michael Barnett and colleagues examined performance on quality measures for low- and high-value care among uninsured patients, patients with Medicaid, and privately insured patients. Sample low-value care measures included computed tomography (CT) for sinusitis, screening electrocardiogram during a general medical examination, and CT or MRI for headache. High-value care measures included aspirin, statin, and beta-blocker use in patients with coronary artery disease and tobacco cessation and weight reduction counseling in eligible patients. The authors analyzed the data by insurance type and by physicians classified as practicing in a safety net population. They found no consistent relationship between insurance status and quality measures, and they concluded that safety net physicians were just as likely as other physicians to provide low-value services.

This study's findings underline the importance of involving clinicians and patients in underserved practices in the Choosing Wisely campaign against medical overuse. For example, the Connecticut Choosing Wisely Collaborative used a foundation grant to study patient-clinician communication about care experiences and incorporate the Choosing Wisely "5 Questions" at two federally qualified health centers. Lessons learned from these pilot projects included providing patients with context for the "5 Questions" materials and offering ongoing role-specific training and support for everyone on the care team.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The USPSTF takes a step backward on PSA screening

I don't agree with all of the statistics cited in this infographic, particularly the optimistic estimate that 1-2 men out of every 1000 screened with the PSA test avoid death from prostate cancer. I believe that the USPSTF's 2012 estimate of 0-1 men remains more accurate, but even if the new figure is true, I don't think that changing the PSA recommendation from a "D" (benefits no greater than harms, don't do) to a "C" (small net benefit, do selectively) is warranted, given the collateral damage to men's health that screening produces. In an editorial in JAMA, the USPSTF Chair and Vice-Chairs have invited the public to comment on the draft recommendations, which are more consistent with those from the American Cancer Society and American Urological Association than the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Preventive Medicine (which both recommend against PSA-based screening). They will hear from me, and I hope that they will hear from others in primary care about the physical, psychological, and opportunity costs of taking a step backward on PSA screening.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Primary care confronts the opioid epidemic

Although I rarely initiate opioid therapy, my practice has inherited an increasing number of patients for whom previous physicians have prescribed potentially dangerous doses of opioids for chronic musculoskeletal or neuropathic pain. What is the best approach to take to this situation? As Dr. Jennifer Middleton discussed in an earlier American Family Physician blog post, I could follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline and try to reduce their pain prescriptions to safer levels by substituting alternative treatments, such as cognitive behavioral and physical therapy. I could choose to stop prescribing opioids for chronic pain, as one federally qualified health center did with notable success. I could also seek out additional training to become certified to treat opioid addiction with buprenorphine.

Last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on every physician in the U.S. to pledge to work with him to "turn the tide" on the opioid epidemic. Writing in New York Magazine, columnist Andrew Sullivan recently called it "this generation's AIDS crisis" - an epidemic that, by being highly concentrated in one demographic (AIDS in urban gay men, opioids in rural, white working-class persons), was invisible to most Americans:

For many of us, ... it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation. And yet its ever-increasing scope, as you travel a few hours into rural America, is jaw-dropping: 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015. That’s more deaths than the peak year for AIDS, which was 51,000 in 1995, before it fell in the next two years. The bulk of today’s human toll is related to opioid, heroin, and fentanyl abuse. And unlike AIDS in 1995, there’s no reason to think the worst is now over.

The April 1 issue of AFP featured a Practice Guidelines summary of the American Academy of Family Physicians' position paper on management of chronic pain and opioid misuse, which noted that "in addition to physicians, there are opportunities to help at the practice, community, education, and advocacy levels." In an accompanying editorial, two family physician authors of the position paper argued that family physicians should take a leading role in responding to the opioid crisis:

Family physicians are committed to advancing population and community health, and we must take the lead in reducing opioid misuse and overdose before outside entities mandate practice strategies that may not be patient-centered. Substance abuse disorders remain a stigma, and physician offices must be safe places for nonjudgmental diagnosis and treatment. Although we certainly cannot tackle this challenge alone, we have a clear opportunity to combat the problem of opioid misuse.

Similarly, the American College of Physicians recently published a position paper on prevention and treatment of substance use disorders that observed that only 18% of people in the U.S. with a substance use disorder are receiving treatment, far short of treatment rates for other chronic conditions in primary care: hypertension (77%), diabetes (73%), or major depression (71%). The authors concurred with the AAFP that multi-pronged efforts will be required to reduce the rising toll of opioid misuse:

Multiple stakeholders should cooperate to address the epidemic of prescription drug misuse, including the following strategies: implementation of evidence-based guidelines for pain management; expansion of access to naloxone to opioid users, law enforcement, and emergency medical personnel; expansion of access to medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders; improved training in the treatment of substance use disorders, including buprenorphine-based treatment; establishment of a national prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP); and improvement of existing monitoring programs.


This post originally appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Is it low T? Maybe not, but pharma advertising pays off

Men's health can be a minefield, and I recently learned that applies to more than screening for prostate cancer.

A few weeks ago, I taped a Medscape commentary about the recent results of the Testosterone Trials, the largest and most rigorous randomized trials to evaluate the effects of testosterone supplements for the pharmaceutical industry-invented condition known as "low T" in older men. I was careful to distinguish low T from hypogonadism, a disease that is also characterized by low testosterone levels but stems from causes other than aging. I began by noting that President Donald Trump had his testosterone level measured last year for no apparent reason, and after analyzing the trial results, I concluded:

Although the Testosterone Trials did not completely rule out benefits of screening for or treating low T, in my view these findings should discourage family physicians from intervening in the vast majority of older men. Most men with low T have no symptoms that will respond to supplements, and for those who do, there are safer and more effective drugs for erectile dysfunction, low bone density, and depression. ... I believe that the story of testosterone supplementation in older men may end up being similar to that of estrogen supplements in postmenopausal women: lots of early hype, but ultimately limited benefits and significant potential harms.

Most of my Medscape pieces receive between 20 to 30 comments; the most I had ever received prior to this was 67 for my analysis of the CDC's opioid prescribing guidelines. I was surprised by the fast and (mostly) furious responses that came in, eventually well over 100. Several suggested that I was "cherry picking" or taking a selective approach to the evidence, even though I placed the new trials in the context of a recent, meticulous systematic review of previous RCTs. A medical student (!) and an endocrinologist questioned my breadth of clinical experience. One physician (not knowing my age) opined that I was obviously too young to have any sympathy for men suffering from the indignities of older age. Another physician (not knowing my testosterone level, which has never been measured) accused me of having a "normal testosterone bias" against low T sufferers. A registered nurse felt that I was motivated by an anti-Trump bias - which I freely admit, but I was not making fun of the President, whose testosterone level was normal. Finally, many disagreed with my contention that testosterone supplements are currently overprescribed, in large part due to aggressive direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising.

It was a fair point of disagreement. Although testosterone prescribing has skyrocketed (to the tune of $4 billion per year) since televised DTC advertising for prescription medications became legal in 1997, that is an association, not necessarily cause-and-effect, and implies nothing about the appropriateness of such prescribing.

Just in time, a March 21 study in JAMA provided stronger evidence to support my assumptions. Dr. J. Bradley Layton and colleagues linked Nielsen ratings for television programs during which DTC ads for "low T awareness" and specific supplements appeared to a population-level database of testosterone testing and prescriptions from 2009-2013. They found that "each exposure to a testosterone advertisement was associated with monthly relative increases in rates of new testosterone testing of 0.6%, new initiation of 0.7%, and initiation without a recent baseline test of 0.8%." In other words, not only did testosterone-related DTC advertising pay off in thousands of new prescriptions, but many of them occurred without prior testing, despite the Endocrine Society's Choosing Wisely recommendation against doing so.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Does family medicine training lead to high-value care?

The American Academy of Family Physicians this month celebrated the results of the 2017 Match, which saw a record 3,237 medical students and graduates fill first-year positions in family medicine residency programs. Although there is ample evidence that providing primary care improves population health, it is less clear how residency training specialty or location influences future health care quality and spending.

As Dr. Jennifer Middleton and I mentioned in prior posts, the AAFP was an early adopter of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation's Choosing Wisely campaign against questionable or unnecessary medical interventions, but so far, studies have shown limited effects of the campaign in primary care. Since an estimated 30 percent of health care spending is wasted on unnecessary services, and a recent case study in JAMA suggested that "excessive resource utilization" may be considered an adverse event, it is worth studying if residency training spending patterns persist in clinical practice.

In a research paper in the Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Robert L. Phillips, Jr. and colleagues at the American Board of Family Medicine and the Robert Graham Center analyzed spending patterns of a nationally representative sample of 3,075 family physicians and general internists who graduated from residency between 1992 and 2010 and who cared for a total of more than 500,000 Medicare patients. The physicians' residency program locations were matched with Hospital Service Areas (HSAs) and categorized by spending per patient into low-, average-, and high-cost groups. The researchers found that the "imprint" of residency training spending patterns persisted regardless of where physicians ended up providing primary care:

Physicians trained in high-cost HSAs spent significantly more per patient than those trained in low-cost HSAs, no matter what the spending category of the practice HSA. Averaged across all practice HSAs, this difference was $1,644. ... This relationship held true for family physicians and general internists in our multivariable analysis; general internists, however, made up two-thirds of sample physicians trained in high-cost HSAs, and family physicians made up two-thirds of those trained in low-cost HSAs. [Residency] graduates were significantly more likely to be low-cost physicians if their sponsoring institution produced fewer total physicians, more rural physicians, or more primary care physicians.

The researchers found no relationship between spending patterns and diabetes quality measures, suggesting that lower spending did not lead to worse health outcomes. And it is important to note that family physicians who trained in high-cost HSAs were as likely to be big health care spenders as general internists from high-cost programs; in other words, there did not appear to be anything inherent in family medicine training that caused graduates to spend less. However, more general internists provided costlier care by virtue of having trained in high-cost areas - most likely, those with tertiary academic medical centers. I agree with Dr. Phillips and colleagues' conclusion that their study "supports efforts to test interventions in residency training that may bend imprinting toward teaching and modeling behaviors that improve value in health care." One intervention has borne fruit for the past 8 years in a row: attracting more medical students to the specialty of family medicine.


This post originally appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

#No2AHCA and positive trends in prostate cancer screening

Without a doubt, today's biggest health policy story is the anticipated House of Representatives' vote on the American Health Care Act, the first step toward fulfilling President Trump's campaign promise to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. I outlined my position on the AHCA in detail in my latest Medscape commentary; for those of you who are not health professionals, suffice to say that I don't think it will do anything to improve the lives of patients, caregivers, or primary care physicians. Even the AHCA's strongest selling point - billions of dollars saved for the federal government over the Congressional Budget Office's 10-year time horizon - is achieved by shrinking premium tax credits relative to costs to make insurance policies unaffordable for more people (meaning that they will not be able to actually use the tax credits) and forcing states to carry more of the financial burden of Medicaid or (more likely) drop people from their programs. The result is that the AHCA, if passed, could actually result in one million fewer people having health insurance than if the ACA was simply repealed.

The bottom line is that the AHCA doesn't reduce the cost of health care; it just shifts more of those costs on to the backs of people who are least able to afford them.

If we want to actually reduce costs, we can start by not providing health care services that are unnecessary, ineffective, or potentially harmful, which is the premise of the Choosing Wisely campaign, the Right Care Alliance, and the Too Much Medicine initiative. There is some good news on this front: a research letter published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that among men aged 40 to 64 years who received health insurance from Aetna between 2009 and 2015, substantially fewer are receiving PSA screening, prostate biopsies, and prostate cancer treatments. This finding suggests that U.S. physicians are screening more selectively, raising the threshold for biopsy, and for men with a prostate cancer diagnosis, choosing watchful waiting or active surveillance more often than aggressive therapy with its associated side effects. Thank you, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

In my practice, after I counsel older men about projected benefits and harms of PSA screening, some will still choose to have the test, but more will decline. Many men in the latter group ask me if there are any better tests in development, and my answer is yes, but they aren't yet ready for routine use. HemeOnc Today recently invited me to respond the question: "Is genetic testing sophisticated enough to make PSA screening viable for mainstream use?" Below is an excerpt from my "No" response:

The search is on to identify more specific biomarkers that can either replace PSA as a screening test, or augment PSA by predicting which men with elevated levels are at the greatest risk for harboring clinically important — and potentially curable — cancers. However, utilizing genetic tests for this purpose outside of clinical trials is premature. The only genetic test for prostate cancer approved by the FDA is the PCA3 urine assay. In 2014, the Evaluation of Genomic Applications in Practice and Prevention Working Group concluded that PCA3 has insufficient supporting evidence to inform decisions to conduct initial or repeat biopsies for prostate cancer in at-risk men. ...

A 2016 systematic review commissioned by Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found insufficient evidence to assess analytic validity of 18 commercially — or close to — available multigene panels for prostate cancer risk assessment, evidence of modest clinical validity beyond patient age and family history, and no studies of clinical utility (eg, effects on process of care, health outcomes, harms and economic outcomes).

It is understandable that physicians and patients who are concerned about prostate cancer are impatient for new tests that promise to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of PSA testing. But we should have learned our lesson from the PSA experience. Now is not the time to perform more uncontrolled experiments on older men by incorporating unproven genetic tests into clinical practice.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Is screening African American men for prostate cancer warranted?

Regular readers of my blog know that I believe that the harms of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer outweigh the benefits, if benefits exist at all. That isn't to say that I will not order the test in a man who understands the risks and expresses a clear preference to be screened. In a recent editorial in American Family Physician, I explained my approach to counseling patients about potential screening harms:

Many older men, especially those who have received PSA tests in the past, may be surprised to learn that screening is no longer routine. Primary care physicians should anticipate this possibility and be prepared to explain that more is now known about the outcomes of testing. Phrases that may be helpful to communicate changes in our understanding of the evidence include “the PSA test is now optional,” “this test has limitations and may not be for everyone,” and “there are some important downsides to being tested.” These strategies, combined with decision aids, should help our patients make informed choices that are consistent with their personal preferences on PSA screening.

One question that arises frequently at the hospital and clinic where I precept family medicine residents is: what about African-American men? Should we advise that they be screened because they have a higher prostate cancer incidence and mortality than other racial or ethnic groups? This question came up during the development of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's 2008 recommendations, which included this statement:

Older men, African-American men, and men with a family history of prostate cancer are at increased risk for diagnosis of and death from prostate cancer. Unfortunately, the previously described gaps in the evidence regarding potential benefits of screening also apply to these men.

The publication of the U.S. and European randomized trials of PSA-based screening, which ultimately caused the USPSTF to change its "I" (insufficient evidence) statement to a "D" (recommend against) in 2012, unfortunately did not do much to clarify benefits and harms of screening in men of African descent, who comprised only 4% of participants in the U.S. trial and an unknown (but probably low) percentage of those in the European trial. And even the subsequent negative findings of the Prostate Cancer Intervention Versus Observation Trial (PIVOT), whose participants were more than 30% African-American, didn't discourage authors in academic journals and prominent medical blogs from arguing that Black men need separate prostate cancer screening guidelines.

What troubles me about this position is that race is as much a social construct as it is a biological one. Much of the disparity in prostate-cancer mortality between African-American and Caucasians can be explained by lower access to and quality of care, rather than a genetic predisposition for more aggressive and/or lethal cancers. In contrast to national data, studies of equal-access healthcare systems in the U.S. such as the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Defense found no differences in prostate cancer mortality between Black and White men.

In this context, the USPSTF recently published a thoughtful methods paper explaining their approach to developing recommendations for diverse populations. The research plan for their updated systematic review on prostate cancer screening included explicit questions about whether the effectiveness or harms of PSA-based screening or treatment approaches varied by subpopulations, including race. Such data may or may not be sufficient to permit the Task Force to assign a separate recommendation letter grade to screening in African-American men this time around (I suspect it will not), but it will hopefully result in more helpful guidance for primary care clinicians.

Here is what I currently tell African-American men over 50 who are considering the PSA test: "In general, this test is more likely to harm than to help. Your personal risk of having prostate cancer is higher than other men, which may make it more likely that you benefit from testing, but also increases the potential harms. So while the general statistics on PSA screening might not apply to you specifically, the decision to be screened still comes down to your personal preference."

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Prioritizing effective clinical preventive services: an update

In a widely cited 2003 study, Dr. Kimberly Yarnall and colleagues estimated that in order for a family physician to provide all U.S. Preventive Services Task Force-recommended services to a patient panel of 2500 with an age and sex distribution similar to that of the U.S. population, he or she would need to spend 7.4 hours per working day, leaving little time to address acute or chronic medical problems. Although the subsequent rise of the patient-centered medical home model has allowed physicians to share this work load with other primary care team members, it remains difficult to meet all preventive care needs. In 2006, the National Commission on Prevention Priorities (NCPP) ranked 25 preventive health services recommended by the USPSTF and the Advisory Commission on Immunization Practices (ACIP) based on clinically preventable burden (health impact) and cost-effectiveness. The three services that received the highest score were aspirin use to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD), the childhood immunization series, and tobacco use screening and brief interventions in adults.

In the January/February Annals of Family Medicine, the NCPP published an updated ranking of effective clinical preventive services, using similar methods as in their 2006 study. The childhood immunization series and adult tobacco use screening and counseling remained the most highly prioritized services, joined by counseling to prevent initiation of tobacco use in children and adolescents, first recommended by the USPSTF in 2013. Although low-dose aspirin for primary prevention remained important, the more targeted 2016 USPSTF recommendation to discuss use with high-risk adults lowered the estimated population health impact of this service. In a recent editorial in American Family Physician, former USPSTF member Douglas Owens explained the rationale for focusing on persons 50 to 59 years of age with a 10% or greater 10-year CVD risk:

The decision to initiate aspirin should be based on a discussion of potential benefits and harms. ... Persons who value avoiding long-term medication use may benefit less from taking aspirin. Cardiovascular risk is also important: the higher a person's risk of CVD, the more potential benefit aspirin provides. The most favorable balance of benefits and harms occurs in persons who are at substantially elevated CVD risk but are not predisposed to bleeding complications. Finally, although older age increases the risk of cardiovascular events, it also increases the risk of bleeding complications.

Dr. Jennifer Middleton discussed the nuances of this recommendation statement, including aspirin's benefits for reducing colorectal cancer risk, in a previous post on the AFP Community Blog.

Finally, clinicians and patients should be aware that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandated that in addition to the USPSTF and ACIP, preventive services recommended by the Bright Futures guidelines and the Women's Preventive Services Initiative be fully covered by private insurance plans without cost-sharing. The methods of these groups differ significantly, and unlike the NCPP, none of them review cost-effectiveness. Although political uncertainty surrounding possible repeal of the ACA makes it unlikely that this process will change in the near future, a 2016 editorial in JAMA Internal Medicine proposed improving the consistency of the groups' evidence review methodologies and forming a separate advisory committee "to integrate economic considerations into the final selection of free preventive services." Or, perhaps the NCPP itself could take on that role?


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog. Be sure to also check out the Feb. 15 AFP Podcast, which includes "The Prevention Priorities Game" (starting at 16:10).

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Patients: steer clear of these six orthopedic procedures

After the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) released its Choosing Wisely list, it was criticized for selecting items that are uncommonly used or have little effect on the income of its members. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Nancy Morden and colleagues pointed out that the five services listed by this specialty group were particularly "low impact":

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons named use of an over-the-counter supplement [glucosamine and chondroitin] as one of the top practices to question. It similarly listed two small durable-medical-equipment items and a rare, minor procedure (needle lavage for osteoarthritis of the knee). Strikingly, no major procedures — the source of orthopedic surgeons' revenue — appear on the list, though documented wide variation in elective knee replacement and arthroscopy among Medicare beneficiaries suggests that some surgeries might have been appropriate for inclusion.

At the Lown Institute's 2015 Road to RightCare Conference, a group of maverick orthopedic surgeons identified five other procedures that, in contrast to the AAOS list, are frequently performed at great expense in the U.S. but provide little or no benefit to patients.

1) Vertebroplasty for spinal compression fractures - in two randomized controlled trials comparing vertebroplasty to a sham procedure, there were no differences in pain or quality of life between the intervention and control groups. Risks of vertebroplasty include causing compression fractures in adjacent vertebrae, dural tears, osteomyelitis, cement migration, and radiculopathies requiring subsequent surgery.

2) Rotator cuff repair for non-traumatic tears in older adults - A randomized trial comparing physical therapy, physical therapy plus acromioplasty, and physical therapy plus acromioplasty and rotator cuff repair found no differences between the control and surgery groups after one year. About 600,000 Americans undergo rotator cuff surgery every year.

3) Clavicle fracture plating in adolescents - In adolescents with clavicle fractures that were displaced and shortened, there were no differences between nonoperative management (a sling for the affected arm) and surgery in appearance, range of motion, or participation in sports activity two years after the injury. However, 1 in 4 adolescents who underwent surgery required re-operation for surgical complications.

4) Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction - In young, active adults with acute ACL tears, a randomized trial comparing early (within 10 weeks of the injury) ACL reconstructive surgery plus physical rehabilitation to rehabilitation plus optional delayed reconstruction up to 2 years after the injury found similar outcomes between the groups. 61 percent of the optional reconstruction group did not require surgery. More than 100,000 ACL reconstructions are performed in the U.S. each year.

5) Partial medial meniscectomy for adults with knee osteoarthritis and no mechanical symptoms - A randomized trial found no benefit of partial meniscectomy compared to sham surgery in adults with degenerative meniscal tears and no osteoarthritis. A systematic review of 7 trials came to the same conclusion. In adults with osteoarthritis, surgery plus physical therapy was not more effective than physical therapy alone. Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy is the most commonly performed orthopedic procedure in the U.S., with 700,000 operations annually.

Finally, a 2015 randomized trial in JAMA suggested that another procedure whose use is increasing worldwide provides no benefits.

6) Surgery for adults with displaced proximal humerus fractures - Patients who underwent fracture fixation or humeral head replacement within 3 weeks of sustaining a displaced fracture of the proximal humerus had no better outcomes than patients assigned to nonoperative management (sling immobilization) after 2 years.

What accounts for the continued popularity of ineffective orthopedic procedures? Excessive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) plays a role; immediate MRI is rarely indicated for common musculoskeletal conditions, and may often provide deceptive or confusing results, such as identifying meniscal tears that are unlikely to be the cause of patients' chronic knee pain. Some primary care clinicians' lack of comfort with the orthopedic examination may lead to unnecessary referrals. Patients who perceive surgery to be a "quick fix" may not have the patience to stick with physical therapy and rehabilitation. And there is the inescapable reality that, necessary or not, these procedures pay well.


This post initially appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on March 20, 2015.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Advanced primary care vs (or is?) direct primary care

One of my most popular Twitter retweets this month highlighted a graphic from the Wall Street Journal showing that in 2014, middle-income households spent 25 percent more on health care than they did in 2007, but 6 to 18 percent less on other basic needs such as housing, transportation, food, and clothing. I commented: Too much of HC debate about "who pays"; not enough questioning "why does HC cost so much?"

One good answer is that lots of health "care" is worthless or harmful, but incentives baked into the U.S. health system push doctors to provide (and be paid handsomely for) it anyway. Shannon Brownlee first told this story in her book Overtreated (and revisited it in this recent review for The Lancet); Atul Gawande described unnecessary medical care as an "avalanche" in his New Yorker profile "Overkill"; and David Epstein called it an "epidemic" in his Atlantic article "When Evidence Says No, but Doctors Say Yes." The bottom line: instead of improving health, many medical interactions are merely opportunities for something bad to happen. (For a timely example, see this NPR article about the harms of screening for cardiac disease in teenage athletes.)

Doctors generally aren't paid to provide quality health care rather than more health care (quantity). A more catchy phrase for this idea among health policy wonks is "moving from volume to value." After more than a decade of trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to cut doctors' fees to compensate for steady increases in the volume of health care services, Congress passed legislation that empowered the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to create a quality payment program. Physicians can enroll in one of two tracks: the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and Advanced Alternative Payment Models (APMs).

In December, the American Academy of Family Physicians published an 11-page position paper that proposed an APM called "Advanced Primary Care." My friend and fellow family physician Richard Young has been dissecting the nitty-gritty details of the proposal in a series of posts on his blog, here, here, and here. It's clear to me that some smart people at the AAFP invested a great deal of time and energy into its development, addressing thorny issues such as how to adjust for social risk factors that make even the best physicians' quality measures look bad and could, if not taken into account, have the unintended effect of reducing access to health care for those who need it the most. It's also extremely complicated, and I have no idea if it would improve quality or lower costs.

Family physician-turned-financial planner and Forbes blogger Carolyn McClanahan has been arguing that a simpler strategy for reducing the nation's health care bills that doesn't involve rationing care for the poor is to remove primary care services from health insurance entirely. This is a strategy that direct primary care advocates have championed; by eliminating administrative burdens and inflated charges for low-cost services, it results in unhurried in-person visits, more flexibility to provide care by phone or electronic communications, and truly personalized care. But McClanahan added a new twist: make basic primary care free to all by giving community health centers enough funding and capacity to provide services to every American who desires it. (Those who would still prefer to see a private family doctor could presumably pay a monthly fee to be part of a direct primary care practice.) Her plan is worth a long look: you can read an abridged version on or a more detailed proposal here.

Although it's been hard for me to see much upside to the Trump presidency, revisiting the Affordable Care Act doesn't need to be bad news. A Hillary Clinton presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress would have likely resulted in continued stalemate: no ACA repeal, but no forward progress in repairing its significant flaws, either. Instead, the political impetus to imagine something better than the health system status quo may galvanize positive change. Family medicine leaders can continue to tinker on the margins, developing iterative proposals for "advanced" primary care that won't make our specialty any more appealing to medical students than the 2004 Future of Family Medicine project or the 2013 Family Medicine for America's Health initiative did. Or they can choose to commit fully to a vision of a health system where everyone has a family doctor, that doctor doesn't change when health insurance changes, and "advanced" primary care means direct primary care.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

For medical schools, mission statements matter

Over the years, applicants whom I've interviewed for positions in the first-year medical student class at Georgetown have often asked how our school's mission statement influences the educational experiences and clinical services we provide:

Guided by the Jesuit tradition of Cura Personalis, care of the whole person, Georgetown University School of Medicine will educate a diverse student body, in an integrated way, to become knowledgeable, ethical, skillful, and compassionate physicians and biomedical scientists who are dedicated to the care of others and health needs of our society.

I never quite know how to answer this question. Like the aspirational mission statement of my previous employer, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which was "to improve the health of all Americans," Georgetown's statement doesn't offer an obvious path for how to produce physicians dedicated to the "health needs of our society." Although our Population Health Scholars Track gives select students perspectives and tools to address societal health needs on the population level, Georgetown consistently graduates a majority of medical subspecialists and produces few who will relieve growing national shortages of family physicians and psychiatrists. As for meeting the needs of rural and urban underserved populations, a 2010 study ranked us 102nd out of 141 U.S. medical schools in the percentage of physicians who were practicing in federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas.

So are medical school mission statements just academic boilerplate, or do they really guide graduate specialty choice and practice location? This was the question that Dr. Christopher Morley and colleagues investigated in a fascinating study published in Family Medicine. A diverse panel of 37 medical students, educators, and administrators reviewed the mission statements of U.S. medical schools and rated them on a 5-point scale for social mission content, defined as "any language that reflects a goal of medical education to train practitioners capable of matching the needs of society and vulnerable populations or for the institution itself to serve vulnerable populations or regions." The mean of panelist ratings for each school's mission statement turned out to be a statistically significant predictor of the percentage of graduates who entered family medicine and the percentage who worked in Medically Underserved Areas/Populations.

As the study authors noted, these interesting associations could be interpreted a number of different ways:

It is not clear from these results if graduate career choice is influenced by the orientation of the institution, or if students who go on to work in these areas of medicine self-select into institutions because of a personal predilection to work in primary care or in underserved communities; however, it appears that medical schools with a proclaimed orientation toward producing physicians in primary care and/or physicians who provide care to underserved populations are achieving these missions.

Incidentally, I don't know how Georgetown's mission statement rated on the scale of social mission content, although I imagine that it would have fallen somewhere in the middle. Also unanswered is the philosophical question of what percentage of schools should be orienting their graduates toward Morley and colleagues' definition of social mission, rather than producing excellent physician-scientists, health executives, or some other standard of accomplishment.

For medical schools, mission statements matter. Perhaps we need a national mission statement for medical education in the United States, one that embraces and expands on the American Association of Medical Colleges' "improve the health of all." This national mission statement would recognize the shortcomings of our current physician workforce and explicitly aim to produce a mix of future medical school graduates who are dedicated and prepared to build the Culture of Health that America so desperately needs.


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on June 11, 2015.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Obstructive sleep apnea: screening and home testing news

According to a recent article in American Family Physician, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is present in 2 to 14 percent of the general adult population, with a higher prevalence in older and obese persons. Most people are unaware of their diagnoses, either because they do not recognize symptoms or do not report them to physicians. Since it is hard to make an asymptomatic person feel better, is there any good reason to screen for OSA in asymptomatic adults? Screening advocates suggest that treating patients with moderate to severe OSA with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) reduces hypoxic episodes that could trigger cardiovascular events in patients with known vascular disease. However, a randomized trial seemed to refute this hypothesis. After almost 4 years of follow-up, the group that received CPAP reported slightly less daytime sleepiness, but had the same frequency of cardiovascular events as the control group.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) considered this study and others in issuing a new recommendation statement on January 24th that concluded "the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for OSA in asymptomatic adults." The USPSTF found inadequate evidence that validated questionnaires accurately identify who will benefit from polysomnography (PSG) in asymptomatic populations (as opposed to those with suspected OSA). The Task Force also could not determine if CPAP or mandibular advancement devices improve health outcomes (mortality, cognitive impairment, motor vehicle crashes, and cardiovascular or cerebrovascular events) other than sleep-related quality of life.

Although an insufficient evidence statement is not necessarily a recommendation to not screen, Drs. Sachin Pendharkar and Fiona Clement argued in an editorial in JAMA Internal Medicine that the costs of screening for OSA (not considered by the Task Force) warrant clinicians doing just that. Based on the sensitivity and specificity of one widely used screening tool, and an OSA prevalence of 26% in the Medicare population, the authors estimate that $21 billion would be wasted on negative PSG tests, or $4.4 billion if less expensive home-based sleep studies were used instead.

On a related note, the comparative accuracy of home-based tests versus laboratory PSG in diagnosing OSA has been an actively studied topic. A 2014 practice guideline from the American College of Physicians recommended that portable sleep monitors (limited-channel sleep studies) only be used to diagnose OSA when PSG was not available. However, a randomized non-inferiority trial published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that patient outcomes after limited-channel studies were similar to those after PSG. This finding may be a blow to the for-profit sleep testing industry, but it is undoubtedly good news for my patients.


This post originally appeared in the AFP Community Blog.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Tom Price is a physician who doesn't understand cancer screening

If confirmed by the Senate, Dr. Tom Price will become the first medical doctor to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 24 years. One might think that having completed medical school and practiced orthopedic surgery before entering politics might give him some extra insight into what works and what doesn't in medicine. But judging by a letter to then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that he signed in 2011 objecting to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's draft recommendations on prostate cancer screening, Dr. Price either failed to learn anything in evidence-based medicine class or forgot everything he learned.

Price and colleagues wrote: "Since the [prostate-specific antigen] PSA test came into widespread use for cancer detection in the mid-1990s, the rate of deaths due to cancer has fallen by 40 percent." This statement reflects an association, not causation, and there is a serious problem with positing the latter based on the natural history of PSA-detected prostate cancers. In the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC), the only trial to conclude that PSA screening reduced deaths from prostate cancer, it took 9 years to observe any difference in prostate cancer deaths between the screening and control groups. But not only was the prostate cancer death rate falling in the U.S. long before any possible screening effect could have occurred, it was also falling in other countries (such as the United Kingdom) that were not employing PSA as a screening test.

The letter goes on to state that the percentage of potentially "curable" prostate cancers rose from 35 to nearly 90 percent after doctors started routinely screening with PSA, so it's obvious that the test works. Dr. Price, have you heard of lead-time and overdiagnosis bias? Even implementing a completely ineffective screening test, such as chest x-rays for lung cancer, will artificially increase survival rates and inflate the number of cancers amenable to surgery because a large percentage of these would never have been detected at all, if not for the test. (On this erroneous conclusion, Dr. Price is unfortunately in good company: a 2012 survey of primary care physicians found that two-thirds would recommend a cancer screening test supported by irrelevant changes in 5-year survival rates.)

Finally, the letter accused the USPSTF of having "cherry-picked" information rather than reviewing the totality of the evidence on PSA-based, which is laughable since it came in the same paragraph that Price and the other legislators highlighted the Goteburg, Sweden randomized trial (a subset of ERSPC) as "the best designed and controlled study." Talk about cherry-picking! Goteburg also happens to be the country with the most impressive-appearing benefit of screening; most of the other countries involved in ERSPC found no statistically significant mortality benefit, as did the U.S. in our own randomized trial.

These cancer epidemiology concepts I've mentioned aren't difficult to master; I teach them all the time to undergraduates and first-year medical students. Since Dr. Price clearly needs a refresher, I refer him to a previous instructional post I originally wrote for urologists. Patients can understand these concepts too, thanks to this excellent video decision aid that persuaded men to make more evidence-based decisions about PSA screening in a recent study published in Annals of Family Medicine.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Diagnosis: self-inflicted wounds

Every so often, a team (or individual athlete) comes along that's so good that the only way they can be stopped is to beat themselves. When they lose, it's from a self-inflicted wound.

It's the Seattle Seahawks in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, throwing an underneath pass from the New England Patriots' 1-yard line that was intercepted instead of handing the football to one of the best running backs in the game for the winning score.

It's the number one-ranked tennis player in the final of a Grand Slam tightening up and double-faulting on match point.

It's one of the top pro golfers of an era on the fairway of the 17th hole of the final round of a major with a 4-shot lead, deciding to go for the green in one (and finding a bunker) rather than taking the safe layup.

It's the U.S. health care system, which should be the envy of the world, lavishing nearly $10,000 per American on health services each year, but wasting billions on excessive administrative costs, unnecessary and harmful interventions, a fragmented delivery system, rationing care by ability to pay, and colossally failing to invest in primary care and community services that are the foundation for good health outcomes.

It's President Trump's discriminatory (and possibly illegal) executive order to halt immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries under the guise of "national security." Did Osama bin Laden really believe that the result of the 9/11 attacks would be armies of jihadists lining up for more suicide strikes on the U.S.? Or instead, did the Al Qaeda leader perhaps envision an injured America turning in on itself and dying slowly from a torrent of self-inflicted wounds: racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, among other epidemics of dark suspicion of those who aren't like us? Like many of you, my family has an immigration story, and I stand in solidarity with those unfortunate souls who are being turned away or detained tonight at the airports all over the country solely because of where they came from.

The patient - America - is in critical condition, but may yet be saved by heroic measures. Don't wait. Protest peacefully. Sign a petition. Call your Congressional representative. And remember the words of pastor Martin Niemöller, who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp:

First they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the Trade Unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak for me

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Guest Post: Voting is a vital sign

- Matthew Brown, MD

As a family doctor who works with the underserved in Rochester, New York, I have seen what happens when people do not have access to primary and preventive care. I have seen people admitted for diabetic complications because they couldn't afford their insulin. I have seen people diagnosed with end-stage cancer because they couldn't afford screenings to catch it when it could have been treated successfully. I have seen strokes, and heart attacks, and kidney failure, and a hundred other things that happened because people had to choose between medicine and food. Between doctor's visits and having a roof over their heads. Between what they needed in the long-term and what they needed right at that moment.

Medical care shouldn't be a political issue. I didn't get into this gig hoping I would get to lobby my congressman, or attend rallies, or research Supreme Court decisions. The reason I worked so hard in college, in medical school, in residency and as an attending was to help people who needed help. And I hope most of the people whom I've had the honor and privilege of serving would see that, even if I failed, I was trying with all of my heart to do that.

But the truth is, if I limit myself to studying diseases and medicines and tests and screenings, I'm not really doing all I can. Because it's not just about that any longer. Because, for all of the talk some years ago about "death panels," we are now seeing what the real death panel is: poverty, lack of power, lack of access to care. Because if you're rich, you can afford health care. And if you're poor, you cannot. Full stop.

I ask my patients about non-medical things all the time. I ask them about work, and about seat-belts and bike helmets. I ask them about guns (and I would do so even if I worked in Florida, law be damned). I ask them about their families, and about their favorite sports teams. I ask them how their weekends went. But now I'm asking them one more question:

Are you registered to vote?

If the answer is yes, then I am thanking them, and urging them to make sure they do vote. In every election. If the answer is no, then I am handing them a voter registration form complete with postage, and asking them to fill it out, providing help if necessary. If they have a felony on their record, I am reviewing the New York state rules (able to vote once off parole). If they have immigration issues, I'm getting a social worker involved.

And this is where The Ask comes in, what I am asking of you:

If you are a primary care clinician who works with the underserved, start asking people if they are registered to vote, then help them to do it. It doesn't take long, and it is so important. If you are a nurse or staff member in a primary care office, get your physicians to do this (they'll listen to you; they need you more than you need them, believe me). If you don't have any of those roles but you know someone who does, then for goodness sake share this message with them. If you know someone who knows someone, share this with them. Heck, just share it on the off chance.

And because everything needs a stupid hashtag these days, here's this one: #VotingIsAVitalSign

It shouldn't be political, but it is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What's in a name? Obesity, ABCD, and prediabetes

A recent position statement from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American College of Endocrinology proposed replacing obesity with the term "adiposity-based chronic disease," or ABCD for short. The authors argued that this new term emphasizes that most persons with obesity will struggle with weight gain for their entire lives; encourages a complications-centric as opposed to body mass index-based management approach; and "avoids the stigmata [sic] and confusion" associated with obesity in popular culture. They also asserted that ABCD is more amenable to interventions based on the Chronic Care Model, which explicitly recognizes that screening and office-based management need to be adapted to the patient's unique environment.

None of these concepts should surprise family physicians, though, and after reading through the AACE/ACE statement, I was not sold on the benefits of the new term. Some patients with body mass indexes above 30 don't like the obesity label, but would they respond any more positively to the disease acronym ABCD? There are potential harms to consider, too. One of my American Family Physician colleagues felt that the new term was "intimidating" and "not at all patient centered," while another thought that it "only hides the issue [of obesity] instead of confronting it."

This discussion brought to mind another medical term often associated with overweight and obese patients: prediabetes. On one hand, being classified as "prediabetic" or at risk for this exceptionally common diagnosis may motivate obese patients to lose weight through improved diet and physical activity. On the other, the term prediabetes is misleading: many of these patients will not develop diabetes, and the diagnostic accuracy of the most common screening tests (hemoglobin A1c and fasting glucose levels) is poor, according to a systematic review published in the BMJ. Due to the tests' low sensitivity and specificity, some persons are incorrectly diagnosed with prediabetes, and others who might actually benefit from interventions to prevent diabetes are falsely reassured. Therefore, the review authors concluded, "'screen and treat' policies alone are unlikely to have substantial impact on the worsening epidemic of type 2 diabetes."

For all its limitations, obesity is a diagnosis with well-established clinical utility. It is less clear how many patients have been helped (or harmed) by being diagnosed with prediabetes. With more study, adiposity-based chronic disease might someday become a useful term, but the current case for more widespread use is unconvincing.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Overuse of health care: can -ologists help themselves?

In a previous post, I reviewed a terrific conference presentation by four orthopedic surgeons on what should have been on the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' "Choosing Wisely" list instead of the timid and low-impact items that the society actually published. In the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked if the presenters had shared their evidence-based list with their society's leaders at one of their national meetings. They hadn't. "We would probably have gotten tossed out of the building," one joked, then added more seriously, "A lot of our members make their living by doing these procedures day in and day out."

Lest I seem to unfairly single out orthopedic surgeons and urologists for turning a blind eye to evidence that refutes long-standing medical practices, a 2015 research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine found that specialist societies (membership organizations of physicians whom my friend and family medicine colleague Richard Young dubs "-ologists") are generally likely to resist reversals of practice. In 20 examples of high-quality, high-profile studies that provided evidence for medical reversals, nearly half of official -ologist society responses defended the practice, an effect that was more pronounced when a reversed practice was rated by the authors as of high importance to members of the responding society (e.g., mammography to radiologists).

Resistance to what physician and health services researcher Peter Ubel calls "de-innovation" is driven by more than just fear of declining income. In a Health Affairs commentary, Dr. Ubel identified several psychological biases that cause -ologists to reject new evidence that contradicts established practices: preconceptions (tendency to favor information that confirms prior beliefs), clinical experiences, mistaking association for causality, and reduction of cognitive dissonance.

Primary care clinicians are not immune to these biases, but a family physician's greater tolerance for uncertainty may be advantageous in adapting to medical reversals and reducing overuse of low-value (or no-value) care, such as PSA screening for prostate cancer. In contrast, -ologists may perform unnecessary tests in attempts to eliminate uncertainty, such as an unenhanced CT scan to "rule out" a 2-mm nonobstructing kidney stone that would not change management:

What drives doctors to order tests? We order tests because we must know why. Anything can be known morphs into everything must be known. ... We order CTs because we can. The CT heals us, and our patients. Uncertainty ails. Our intolerance of uncertainty is neither congenital nor stochastic. Our dislike of uncertainty has grown with the availability of imaging. It has reached its apotheosis because of rapid door-to-CT time, the removal of barriers to ordering, and the speed with which reports are rendered. ... So much waste can be avoided by using probability and numbers and applying judgment—the components of rational medical decision making.

Although the relationships between providers of health care, costs, and overuse are complex, recent evidence supports associations between comprehensive primary care and lower costs and higher continuity of care and less overuse. Given these findings, it's not surprising that Dr. Atul Gawande's New Yorker piece, "Overkill," concluded that tackling overuse in health care meant supporting and empowering clinicians whose generalist training, experience, and tolerance for uncertainty makes them best suited to replace unnecessary care with necessary care: family physicians.


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on May 18, 2015.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ethical foundations of health reform

It's been a rough past couple of months not only for millions of Americans whose health care futures depend on decisions to be made by the new Congress and incoming Trump administration, but for those of us who teach about the U.S. health system for a living. As one health policy expert I follow tweeted, only half-facetiously, on election night: "Dear students: all that stuff I taught you about the ACA? You can forget about it now."

Senate Republicans yesterday took the first steps toward repealing and replacing (or more likely, repealing and delaying) the Affordable Care Act through a procedure called budget reconciliation. As I recently told a MedPage Today reporter, although reconciliation can't completely undo Obamacare, it can undo more than enough. Stop the flow of federal funds for the Medicaid eligibility expansion adopted by 31 states and Washington, DC, and most will be forced to drop coverage or cut back on benefits to balance their budgets. Stop the federal tax subsidies to low-income persons who purchase individual insurance plans on the health insurance marketplaces, and insurers - already forced to sharply raise premiums because not enough young and healthy adults bought in - will leave the marketplaces. Stop enforcing the individual mandate, and even more people won't buy health insurance, pricing premiums even more out of reach and potentially leading to an adverse selection death spiral.

As a piece of legislation, the ACA was 100% partisan, passing Congress without a single Republican vote and signed into law by a Democratic president. But historically, it originated as the conservative (Republican!) alternative to President Bill Clinton's American Health Security Act that failed to even come to a vote in Congress.

I was a college freshman from 1993-1994, and much more interested in Imperial Russian history than in modern U.S. politics, so I have no personal memories of the protracted health care reform debates that occurred in the halls of Congress or between ordinary Americans watching "Harry and Louise" advertisements on television (which I also have no memory of whatsoever). But I recently obtained a paperback copy of the Clinton White House Domestic Policy Council's blueprint for what became known as "Hillarycare." Not surprisingly, it contains some good ideas - particularly those supporting more training programs for and higher payments to primary care physicians - and many that probably wouldn't have worked out very well. But one chapter, "Ethical Foundations for Health Reform," resonated with me, as I imagine it would with others across our diverse political spectrum. It asks, then answers in 14 briefly defined concepts, the essential question: what values and principles should shape our health system?

Universal access
Comprehensive benefits
Equality of care
Fair distribution of costs
Personal responsibility
Inter-generational justice
Wise allocation of resources
Effective management
Professional integrity and responsibility
Fair procedures
Local responsibility

Always, the devil is in the details. For example, how broad or generous do "comprehensive" benefits need to be? What is a "fair" distribution of health care costs? Who decides what is a "wise" allocation of resources? How much "local" responsibility should be reserved for states and communities versus the federal government? But as the patchwork U.S. health system seems primed to undergo another political upheaval, I think it's more important than ever to seek consensus on the destination for health reform before embarking on the journey.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

We need to know more about psychological harms of screening

A decade ago, a few colleagues and I performed a systematic evidence review to help update the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's recommendations on screening for prostate cancer. One of our key questions asked about the harms associated with prostate cancer screening, other than the overdiagnosis (and resulting unnecessary treatment) of clinically insignificant tumors. Since routine prostate-specific antigen screening had been going on since the early 1990s, we expected to find plenty of studies measuring anxiety and other mental health changes caused by false positive or indeterminate screening results.

In fact, after sifting through more than four hundred citations, we only found four articles describing three studies. Only one of the studies followed men for as long as one year. Here's what we wrote about that study:

[The authors] compared 167 men who had an abnormal screening result but a benign biopsy specimen with 233 men who had a normal PSA level. After 6 weeks, 49% of men in the biopsy group reported thinking about prostate cancer “a lot” or “some of the time,” compared with 18% of the control group. In addition, 40% of the biopsy group worried “a lot” or “some of the time” about developing prostate cancer compared with 8% of the control group. ... Statistically significant differences between the biopsy and control groups in anxiety related to prostate cancer and perceived prostate cancer risk persisted 6 months and 1 year later.

One might think that men with normal biopsies following an elevated PSA level should have been reassured that they had dodged a bullet and been pronounced prostate cancer-free. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred. And that's hardly surprising, since prostate biopsies, unlike breast biopsies, usually don't aim for a particular location of concern, leaving open the worrisome possibility that the biopsy needle just didn't sample the cancer if it was there. (How uncommonly cancer cells found in the prostate spread and lead to symptoms or death is another issue entirely.)

In the years since that review was published, the USPSTF has recommended against PSA-based screening for prostate cancer and recommended for low-dose CT screening for lung cancer in selected patients. There has been a major shift in how scientists view cancer screening and more interest in studying previously undescribed harms. In a review of psychological harms of screening published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Jessica DeFrank and colleagues assessed the literature on the burden or frequency of psychological harm associated with screening for prostate cancer (42 studies), lung cancer (11 studies), osteoporosis (6 studies), abdominal aortic aneurysm (8 studies), and carotid artery stenosis (1 study). They observed that for most screening tests, there remain large gaps in the evidence about the magnitude and frequency of such harms in populations representative of those receiving the tests. (I hasten to add that neither the USPSTF nor any other legitimate medical organization recommends ultrasound screening for carotid artery stenosis.) 

Causing needless worry about cancer or another absent health condition can seem trivial compared to the prospect of saving a life. But increasing recognition of the limitations of screening for cancer and disease in general, and the nearly nonexistent effect of these tests on all-cause mortality, have altered the equation. If more than 96 percent of initially positive screens turn out to be false positives (as is the case for lung cancer screening), just how much anxiety and worry are we as a society willing to inflict to merely exchange one cause of death for another?


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on March 4, 2015.