This week, the science of medicine bumped up against the foundations of American medical consumerism: that more is better, that saving a life is worth any sacrifice, that health care is a birthright.
Two new recommendations, calling for delaying the start and reducing the frequency of screening for breast and cervical cancer, have been met with anger and confusion from some corners, not to mention a measure of political posturing.
The backers of science-driven medicine, with its dual focus on risks and benefits, have cheered the elevation of data in the setting of standards. But many patients – and organizations of doctors and disease specialists – find themselves unready to accept the counterintuitive notion that more testing can be bad for your health.
“People are being asked to think differently about risk,” said Sheila M. Rothman, a professor of public health at Columbia University. “The public state of mind right now is that they’re frightened that evidence-based medicine is going to be equated with rationing. They don’t see it in a scientific perspective.”
For decades, the medical establishment, the government and the news media have preached the mantra of early detection, spending untold millions of dollars to spread the word. Now, the hypothesis that screening is vital to health and longevity is being turned on its head, with researchers asserting that mammograms and Pap smears can cause more harm than good for women of certain ages.
On Monday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federally appointed advisory panel, recommended that most women delay the start of routine mammograms until they are 50, rather than 40, as the group suggested in 2002. It also recommended that women receive the test every two years rather than annually, and that physicians not train women to perform breast self-examination.
The task force, whose recommendations are not binding on insurers or physicians, concluded after surveying the latest research that the risks caused by over-diagnosis, anxiety, false-positive test results and excess biopsies outweighed the benefits of screening for women in their 40s. It found that one cancer death is prevented for every 1,904 women ages 40 to 49 who are screened for 10 years, compared with one death for every 1,339 women from 50 to 74, and one death for every 377 women from 60 to 69.