Tag Archives: medical screening

Screening: More Does NOT Equal Better

In an important op-ed piece in the New York Times, “An Epidemic of Thyroid Cancer?”, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch from Dartmouth University wrote that he and his team of researchers found that the rate of thyroid cancer in South Korea has increased 15-fold!

15X! How can this be?!

Were South Koreans exposed to massive amounts of radiation? Did South Koreans start using some dangerous skin product?

No. And no.

South Korean doctors and the South Korean government encouraged increased cancer screening. More screening must be better, right?

No. Not at all…

This is an important concept for employee benefits professionals to understand: More screening is not necessarily better.

What happened in South Korea is that the thyroid cancer had been there all along, just undetected. The most common type of thyroid cancer — papillary thyroid cancer — is usually very slow-growing, and people with this cancer never know it is there. It does not affect their health, and it does not kill them. According to the article, it is estimated that 1/3 of ALL ADULTS have thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer screening is performed by an ultrasound of the neck. It is an un-invasive, painless, fairly simple test. So what happened in South Korea was not an epidemic of thyroid cancer but, as the article puts it, “an epidemic of diagnosis.”

There is potential harm in treating a cancer that will likely not cause you any problems. Two out of every 1,000 thyroid surgeries result in death. Removal of the thyroid means a person will have to take thyroid replacement medication for the rest of her life. This medication can be hard to adjust, leading to problems with metabolism, such as weight gain or low energy.

In the U.S., there are many screenings that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has deemed “unproven” for application across entire populations of asymptomatic individuals. For example:

  • Screening the skin for skin cancer
  • Screening the carotid arteries (neck blood vessels) for narrowing

It is important to address the converse. Increased screening that has been shown to reduce morbidity and mortality is a good thing. Screening for high blood pressure is a good thing. Screening for diabetes is a good thing. Screening for certain types of cancers is a good thing.

What does this mean for the employee benefits professionals and the healthcare consumer?

  • Beware of “blanket” statements that more screening is better or of companies that are offering screenings that are not vetted.
  • Know that screening can actually cause harm because of side effects or complications of treatment for a “disease” that is really not a problem.
  • As you set up prevention programs for your employees, ensure that those programs are based on scientific evidence.

Are Annual Physicals Really Worthless?

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote a contrarian opinion piece in the Jan. 8, 2015, issue of the New York Times titled, “Skip Your Annual Physical.” Dr. Emanuel is an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania and was an adviser to the Obama administration regarding the design of health reform. He is also the brother of Rahm Emanuel, a former presidential chief of staff.

As you can guess from the title of the opinion article, Dr. Emanuel believes that annual physicals are not worth having because they do not reduce mortality. He cites a Cochrane Review study to back up his statement. Click here to read a summary of the study by the American Association of Family Practice.

Dr. Emanuel’s comments bring the following question to mind: How is one to have the evidence-based screenings recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) without an annual physical?

Here is a list of some of the USPSTF screenings and interventions that studies have shown to be of value by reducing morbidity or mortality that could be accomplished at an annual physical:

  1. Screening for Type II diabetes
  2. Screening for hypertension
  3. Screening for lipid disorders (e.g. high cholesterol)
  4. Screening and counseling for alcohol abuse
  5. Screening for cervical cancer every 3-5 years
  6. Screening for obesity
  7. Potential use of aspirin for the prevention of heart attack
  8. Counseling on folate vitamin supplements for all women capable of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects
  9. Counseling overweight and obese patients to improve their diet and exercise habits

Source: American Association of Family Practice

Many of these conditions are not rare.  For example:

  • 9.3% of the U.S. population has diabetes-of whom, 9 million are undiagnosed (Click here for ADA source). Assuming a U.S. population of 300 million, 9 million is 3% of the population, so three in 100 screenings would find undiagnosed diabetes. In a company with 1,000 employees, screening for diabetes would result in identifying 30 new cases of diabetes.
  • 29% of the adult U.S. population has hypertension-17% are undiagnosed (Click here for CDC source). 17% of 29% is about (again) 3% of the adult U.S. population, so three in 100 screenings would find undiagnosed hypertension. In a company with 1,000 employees, screening for hypertension would result in identifying 30 new cases of hypertension.

An annual physical is a great way to address these nine proven screening tests and interventions that will lengthen life and reduce suffering. This is only a representative sample from the USPSTF.  There are actually more than nine. You would not “technically” need an annual physical, but you would have to have some other mechanism for having these screenings and interventions performed.  A similar point is made by the American Academy of Family Physicians in its review of the Cochrane study. However, the use of the doctor’s office as the setting for the screening means that if an abnormality is found (i.e. diabetes, hypertension, etc.), then the doctor can prescribe an intervention.

To skip an annual physical and to not have the screening performed some other way-and followed up on-is hazardous to your health