Thursday, March 14, 2013

Preventive health advice for the new Pope

Congratulations to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina, who yesterday became Pope Francis, the new leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. The new Pope is 76 years old and in apparently good health. To ensure a long and productive reign, Pope Francis's personal physician would be wise to provide age-appropriate preventive care, which includes yearly influenza vaccination and a one-time dose of the pneumococcal vaccine if he hasn't already received it. He should forgo the PSA test for prostate cancer screening, which would cause more harm than good in a man of his age (or any age), and think carefully about continuing colorectal cancer screening, which adults between 76 and 85 years of age should not undergo routinely due to the close balance between benefits and harms, such as complications from anesthesia. If the Pope chooses to have a colonoscopy, he should select a specialist who will adhere to evidence-based guidelines on screening intervals, to avoid the practice of too-frequent colonoscopy that is unfortunately widespread in the United States.

Although Pope Francis is now a world leader with the status of monarchs and Presidents, he should decline any sort of Presidential Physical that includes screenings that are nonbeneficial (such as the aforementioned PSA test) or have insufficient supporting evidence. In fact, I would encourage him to use the pulpit of the Papacy to challenge the absurd notion that undergoing screening tests in men and women his age is "morally obligatory," which a recent study found is commonly held among U.S. seniors. Pope Francis could call into question the morality of for-profit companies, such as Life Life Screening, that prey on vulnerable seniors in their houses of worship by selling questionable or totally worthless tests outside of the context of the physician-patient relationship. Perhaps a Papal edict banning such groups from advertising in the bulletins of Catholic churches worldwide? Better yet, he could lead an inter-denominational campaign against such abuses in people of all faiths.