New research shows how some common tests and procedures aren’t just expensive, but can do more harm than good.
by Sharon Begley | August 14, 2011 10:0 AM EDT
That less health care can lead to better health and, conversely, that more health care can harm health, runs counter to most patients’ conviction that screenings and treatments are inherently beneficial. That belief is fueled by the flood of new technologies and drugs that have reached the market in the past two or three decades, promising to prevent disease and extend life. Most of us wouldn’t think twice if our doctor offered a test that has the power to expose a lurking tumor, or a clogged artery, or a heart arrhythmia. Better to know—and get treated—than to take any risks, the reasoning goes.
cause of the problem or a threat to future health: “All you’ve done is misclassify someone with no disease as having disease.”From PSA tests for prostate cancer (which more than 20 million U.S. men undergo every year) to surgery for chronic back pain to simple antiobiotics for sinus infection, a remarkable number and variety of tests and treatments are now proving either harmful or only as helpful as a placebo.
The dilemma, say a growing number of physicians and expert medical panels, is that some of this same health care that helps certain patients can, when offered to everyone else, be useless or even detrimental. Some of the most disturbing examples involve cardiology. At least five large, randomized controlled studies have analyzed treatments for stable heart patients who have nothing worse than mild chest pain. The studies compared invasive procedures including angioplasty, in which a surgeon mechanically widens a blocked blood vessel by crushing the fatty deposits called plaques; stenting, or propping open a vessel with wire mesh; and bypass surgery, grafting a new blood vessel onto a blocked one. Every study found that the surgical procedures didn’t improve survival rates or quality of life more than noninvasive treatments including drugs (beta blockers, cholesterol-lowering statins, and aspirin), exercise, and a healthy diet. They were, however, far more expensive: stenting costs Medicare more than $1.6 billion a year.
New technology has sometimes made the problem more acute. Where once arterial blockages were detected by chest X-ray, now doctors can use cardiac CT angiography, which shows the heart and coronary arteries in dramatic 3-D. When it was introduced a decade ago to screen for cardiovascular disease, it seemed almost miraculous: a 2005 cover of Time trumpeted that it could “stop a heart attack before it happens.” Difficult as it is to believe, however, there can be such a thing as too much information, especially from new imaging technology. “Our imaging and diagnostic tests are so good, we can see things we couldn’t see before,” says Lauer of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “But our ability to understand what we’re seeing and to know if we should intervene hasn’t kept up.”In a recent study, John McEvoy, a heart specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and colleagues found that 1,000 low-risk patients who had CT angiography had no fewer heart attacks or deaths over the next 18 months than 1,000 patients who did not undergo the screening. But they did have more drugs, tests, and invasive procedures such as stenting, all of which carry a risk of side effects, surgical complications, and even death. The CT itself has a potential side effect: by exposing patients to high levels of radiation, it raises the risk of cancer. “Low-risk patients without symptoms don’t benefit from CT angiography,” says McEvoy, though high-risk patients with heart disease might.
cholesterol nor her C-reactive protein (another risk factor for heart disease) were elevated. But since the CT showed several coronary plaques, her physicians performed coronary angiography. Complications ensued, and the woman wound up undergoing more procedures, one of which tore an artery. She eventually went to the Cleveland Clinic for a heart transplant—not because she had heart disease when it all started, says Nissen, but because of the cascading interventions triggered by the CT.
Nissen regularly counsels asymptomatic, low-risk patients against having cardiac CT, echocardiograms, and even treadmill stress tests; studies show they produce many false positives, leading to risky interventions. Even a clean scan can lead to worse health, if it makes people believe they can eat whatever they want and stop exercising. “I’ve had colleagues gain weight after a negative heart scan,” apparently figuring they were home free, says UCSF’s Redberg.
Dr. James Goodwin, a geriatrician at the University of Texas Medical Branch, cites an extreme example of this fallacy in the case of a frail 84-year-old woman who was told by her gastroenterologist that it was time for another colonoscopy, just a few years after her last one showed no problems. She died when the procedure perforated her colon.Though this outcome is rare, the recommendation that led to the woman’s death is all too common, says Goodwin, even though expert groups advise against screening colonscopies for anyone over 75 or who has had a normal result within the past 10 years.
Both curious and concerned, Goodwin launched a study of Medicare patients. Fully 46 percent had a screening colonoscopy fewer than seven years after a negative one. Making matters worse, many of them were over 80.
Antidepressants, for instance, have been shown in randomized trials to help with severe depression but not with moderate or mild depression, yet are widely prescribed for those conditions.
Statins, common cholesterol-reducing drugs, may also not benefit some people who are taking them. Statins are proved to help people with both heart disease and high cholesterol, but not those with just high cholesterol. The drugs are nevertheless widely prescribed to patients who fit the latter description, despite adverse effects, such as severe muscle disease in up to 20 percent of patients.
Low-tech tests should sometimes be avoided, too.
Many doctors don’t seem to be getting the message about useless and harmful health care. Medicare pays them more than $100 million a year for screening colonoscopies; some 40 percent are for people in whom they will almost certainly harm more than help.