This is an excerpt from a 9,000 word article in the New Yorker written by Atul Gawande:
[A] huge proportion [of people] receive care that [is] simply a waste.
The researchers called it “low-value care.” But, really, it was no-value care. They studied how often people received one of twenty-six tests or treatments that scientific and professional organizations have consistently determined to have no benefit or to be outright harmful. Their list included doing an EEG for an uncomplicated headache (EEGs are for diagnosing seizure disorders, not headaches), or doing a CT or MRI scan for low-back pain in patients without any signs of a neurological problem (studies consistently show that scanning such patients adds nothing except cost), or putting a coronary-artery stent in patients with stable cardiac disease (the likelihood of a heart attack or death after five years is unaffected by the stent). In just a single year, the researchers reported, twenty-five to forty-two per cent of Medicare patients received at least one of the twenty-six useless tests and treatments. ...
H. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth Medical School professor, is an expert on overdiagnosis, and in his excellent new book, “Less Medicine, More Health,” he explains the phenomenon this way: we’ve assumed, he says, that cancers are all like rabbits that you want to catch before they escape the barnyard pen. But some are more like birds—the most aggressive cancers have already taken flight before you can discover them, which is why some people still die from cancer, despite early detection. And lots are more like turtles. They aren’t going anywhere. Removing them won’t make any difference.
We’ve learned these lessons the hard way. Over the past two decades, we’ve tripled the number of thyroid cancers we detect and remove in the United States, but we haven’t reduced the death rate at all. In South Korea, widespread ultrasound screening has led to a fifteen-fold increase in detection of small thyroid cancers. Thyroid cancer is now the No. 1 cancer diagnosed and treated in that country. But, as Welch points out, the death rate hasn’t dropped one iota there, either. (Meanwhile, the number of people with permanent complications from thyroid surgery has skyrocketed.) It’s all over-diagnosis. We’re just catching turtles.
Every cancer has a different ratio of rabbits, turtles, and birds, which makes the story enormously complicated. A recent review concludes that, depending on the organ involved, anywhere from fifteen to seventy-five per cent of cancers found are indolent tumors—turtles—that have stopped growing or are growing too slowly to be life-threatening. Cervical and colon cancers are rarely indolent; screening and early treatment have been associated with a notable reduction in deaths from those cancers. Prostate and breast cancers are more like thyroid cancers. Imaging tends to uncover a substantial reservoir of indolent disease and relatively few rabbit-like cancers that are life-threatening but treatable.
We now have a vast and costly health-care industry devoted to finding and responding to turtles. Our ever more sensitive technologies turn up more and more abnormalities—cancers, clogged arteries, damaged-looking knees and backs—that aren’t actually causing problems and never will. And then we doctors try to fix them, even though the result is often more harm than good.
The forces that have led to a global epidemic of overtesting, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment are easy to grasp. Doctors get paid for doing more, not less. We’re more afraid of doing too little than of doing too much. And patients often feel the same way. They’re likely to be grateful for the extra test done in the name of “being thorough”—and then for the procedure to address what’s found. ...
Could a backlash arrive and halt the trend [of overtreatment]? It’s a concern. No one has yet invented a payment system that cannot be gamed. If doctors are rewarded for practicing more conservative medicine, some could end up stinting on care. What if Virginia Mason turns away a back-pain patient who should have gone to surgery? What if Dr. Osio fails to send a heart patient to the emergency room when he should have? What if I recommend not operating on a tiny tumor, saying that it is just a turtle, and it turns out to be a rabbit that bounds out of control?
Proponents point out that people can sue if they think they’ve been harmed, and doctors’ groups can lose their contracts for low-quality scores, which are posted on the Web. But not all quality can be measured. It’s possible that we will calibrate things wrongly, and skate past the point where conservative care becomes inadequate care. Then outrage over the billions of dollars in unnecessary stents and surgeries and scans will become outrage over necessary stents and surgeries and scans that were not performed.
Right now, we’re so wildly over the boundary line in the other direction that it’s hard to see how we could accept leaving health care the way it is. Waste is not just consuming a third of health-care spending; it’s costing people’s lives. As long as a more thoughtful, more measured style of medicine keeps improving outcomes, change should be easy to cheer for. Still, when it’s your turn to sit across from a doctor, in the white glare of a clinic, with your back aching, or your head throbbing, or a scan showing some small possible abnormality, what are you going to fear more—the prospect of doing too little or of doing too much?...