“An epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments”

This article is long, but extremely good. It matches up with both my overall dim view of modern medical care—I haven’t seen a doctor in fifteen years, and hope to extend that stretch greatly—and my recent brushes with the system on behalf of someone else.

Some favorite quotes:

What the patients in both stories had in common was that neither needed a stent. By dint of an inquiring mind and a smartphone, one escaped with his life intact. [The other died.] The greater concern is: How can a procedure so contraindicated by research be so common?


Even if a drug you take was studied in thousands of people and shown truly to save lives, chances are it won’t do that for you. The good news is, it probably won’t harm you, either. Some of the most widely prescribed medications do little of anything meaningful, good or bad, for most people who take them.


According to Vinay Prasad, an oncologist and one of the authors of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, medicine is quick to adopt practices based on shaky evidence but slow to drop them once they’ve been blown up by solid proof. […] “We have a culture where we reward discovery; we don’t reward replication,” Prasad says, referring to the process of retesting initial scientific findings to make sure they’re valid.


It is, of course, hard to get people in any profession to do the right thing when they’re paid to do the wrong thing. But there’s more to this than market perversion. On a recent snowy St. Louis morning, Brown gave a grand-rounds lecture to about 80 doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Early in the talk, he showed results from medical tests on the executive he treated, the one who avoided a stent. He then presented data from thousands of patients in randomized controlled trials of stents versus noninvasive treatments, and it showed that stents yielded no benefit for stable patients.

He asked the doctors in the room to raise their hands if they would still send a patient with the same diagnostic findings as the executive for a catheterization, which would almost surely lead to a stent. At least half of the hands in the room went up, some of them sheepishly. Brown expressed surprise at the honesty in the room. “Well,” one of the attendees told him, “we know what we do.” But why?


So it’s not hard to understand why Sir James Black won a Nobel Prize largely for his 1960s discovery of beta-blockers, which slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. The Nobel committee lauded the discovery as the “greatest breakthrough when it comes to pharmaceuticals against heart illness since the discovery of digitalis 200 years ago.” In 1981, the FDA approved one of the first beta-blockers, atenolol, after it was shown to dramatically lower blood pressure. Atenolol became such a standard treatment that it was used as a reference drug for comparison with other blood-pressure drugs. […]

That odd result prompted a subsequent study, which compared atenolol with sugar pills. It found that atenolol didn’t prevent heart attacks or extend life at all; it just lowered blood pressure. A 2004 analysis of clinical trials—including eight randomized controlled trials comprising more than 24,000 patients—concluded that atenolol did not reduce heart attacks or deaths compared with using no treatment whatsoever; patients on atenolol just had better blood-pressure numbers when they died.


According to interviews with surgeons, many patients they see want, or even demand, to be operated upon and will simply shop around until they find a willing doctor. Christoforetti recalls one patient who traveled a long way to see him but was “absolutely not a candidate for an operation.” Despite the financial incentive to operate, he explained to the patient and her husband that the surgery would not help.

“She left with a smile on her face,” Christoforetti says, “but literally as they’re checking out, we got a ding that someone had rated us [on a website], and it’s her husband. He’s been typing on his phone during the visit, and it’s a one-star rating that I’m this insensitive guy he wouldn’t let operate on his dog. They’d been online, and they firmly believed she needed this one operation and I was the guy to do it.”

So, what do surgeons do? “Most of my colleagues,” Christoforetti says, “will say: ‘Look, save yourself the headache, just do the surgery. None of us are going to be upset with you for doing the surgery. Your bank account’s not going to be upset with you for doing the surgery. Just do the surgery.’”


“Yes, we can move a number, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to better outcomes,” says John Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Louisville who advocates for healthy lifestyle changes. It’s tough, he says, “when patients take a pill, see their numbers improve, and think their health is improved.”


The public grossly overestimates how much of our increased life expectancy should be attributed to medical care, and is largely unaware of the critical role played by public health and improved social conditions determinants.

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One thought on ““An epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments”

  1. I’ve had a lot of exposure to end of life care and it’s catastrophic; it’s definitely increased my native tendency — based on an aversion to being touched by strangers — not let myself fall into the hands of doctors. I saw this article too and it reassured me a bit.

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