Urologists Threaten the Autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Over at HealthNewsReview.org  Gary Schwitzer has published a disturbing piece that looks at American Urological Association support for a bll that would make “significant changes to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.”

The guest post is written by Dr.Richard Hoffman, who is both one of HealthNewsReivew’s reviewers, and an editor at the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation a group that promotes “shared decision making.”   The Foundation, which was co-founded by Dr.Jack Wennber, the father of the Dartmouth Reserach,uses medical evidence to produce outstanding videos, pamphlets and web-based programs that help patients understand the potential risks and benefits of  elective surgeries and tests..  (I have written about “shared decision making” in past posts ). 

Below, an excerpt from Hoffman’s piece:

“Last week, the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, legislation (H.R. 5998) was introduced that threatens the autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“The legislation proposes to mandate a more transparent process for guideline development, a greater role for specialists and advocacy groups, and eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit The legislation, which comes on the heels of the Task Force’s controversial D rating against prostate cancer screening, is strongly supported by several prominent urological associations. 

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50,000 to 90,000 American Women Incorrectly Diagnosed with Breast Cancer Annually– A Story in the NYT That Women and Their Doctors Should Read

As regular Health Beat readers know, over the past three years, Naomi Freundlich, and I have written about the risks as well as the benefits of mammograms more than once on this blog. Nevertheless, I want to call attention to an outstanding New York Times story by Stephanie Saul that appeared on the front page of the Times Wednesday, July 19, taking an in-depth look at what can only be called a medical tragedy.  

Saul tells the tale of women who lost all or part of a breast, and in many cases suffered through radiation, for absolutely no reason.  This could happen to anyone. One of these women was a nurse.

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One Family’s Story

I urge everyone to read “What Broke My Father’s Heart” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, a superb first-person narrative by Katy Butler http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/magazine/20pacemaker-t.html?ref=magazine

Butler describes how our money-driven medical industrial complex has begun to dictate how we die—even if we think we have done our best to make our wishes known.

Here are a few excerpts:

My parents “had signed living wills and durable power-of-attorney documents for health care. My mother, who watched friends die slowly of cancer, had an underlined copy of the Hemlock Society’s “Final Exit” in her bookcase. Even so, I watched them lose control of their lives to a set of perverse financial incentives — for cardiologists, hospitals and especially the manufacturers of advanced medical devices — skewed to promote maximum treatment. At a point hard to precisely define, they stopped being beneficiaries of the war on sudden death and became its victims.”

I would add: Be careful of what you wish for.  Too many Americans set out to “beat death” without realizing that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you:

 Thanks to advanced medical technologies,” Butler writes, “elderly people now survive repeated health crises that once killed them, and so the ‘oldest old’ have become the nation’s most rapidly growing age group. Nearly a third of Americans over 85 have dementia (a condition whose prevalence rises in direct relationship to longevity). Half need help with at least one practical, life-sustaining activity, like getting dressed or making breakfast. Even though a capable woman was hired to give my dad showers, my 77-year-old mother found herself on duty more than 80 hours a week. Her blood pressure rose and her weight fell. On a routine visit to Dr. Fales, she burst into tears. She was put on sleeping pills and antidepressants.

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The Doctor Who Invented PSA Test Calls It “A Profit-Driven Public Health Disaster” . . . Why This Is Good News

Times are changing. Americans are beginning to acknowledge that “early detection” is not the absolute answer to cancer. And many are  recognizing that what seems a simple diagnostic test can carry more risks than benefits.

Tuesday, the New York Times ran an Op-ed by Richard J. Ablin,  the man who invented the prostate-specific-antigen (PSA) test which is widely used to detect signs of  early-stage prostate cancer.  Ablin, who is  now a research professor of immunobiology and pathology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the president of the Robert Benjamin Ablin Foundation for Cancer Research,  reveals that “in approving the procedure, the Food and Drug Administration relied heavily on a study that showed testing could detect 3.8 percent of prostate cancers, which was a better rate than the standard method, a digital rectal exam.

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Your Yearly Physical Is a Waste of Time

…or at least that’s what some experts have increasingly been suggesting. According to the American College of Physicians (ACP), instead of having an annual physical, “healthy adults should undergo a much-streamlined exam that’s focused on prevention every one to five years depending on a person’s age, sex and medical profile.”

So what does that mean, exactly? According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, doctors should focus on “interventions that help patients change health-impairing habits or that spotlight emerging illnesses for which reliable and effective treatments exist.”  These include “Pap smears, mammograms, cholesterol tests, blood-pressure checks, and counseling to stop smoking, lose weight, get more exercise and eat a healthier diet.” In other words, rather than just checking for everything, doctors should focus on interventions that can be substantively linked to treatments we know work. Currently, most check-ups are comprehensive run-throughs that seem to be administered  just for their own sake, regardless of how, or even if, they relate to meaningful treatments.

For many of us, the annual physical is a fixture of our health care
experience, something we assume to be both necessary and desirable.
Indeed, a study released last month found that 64 million Americans a
year get a physical or gynecological exam, costing a total of $7.8
billion.  Regular gynecological exams are important—they include Pap
smears that have made cervical cancer a rare disease. But the point of
the general physical is less clear.  More people get annual check ups
than visit doctors for respiratory conditions or high blood pressure,
and the price tag for yearly physicals closes in on the $8.1 billion
spent on breast cancer care.

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Human Growth Hormone and The Business of Immortality

Last week, James Forsythe, a prominent doctor in Reno, Nevada was acquitted by a federal jury after going to trial on allegations that he trafficked in human growth hormone (HGH). The decision came as a relief to the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M), because among other allegations, the doctor was accused of selling HGH as an anti-aging treatment, which is illegal in the U.S. A4M has a history of pushing for HGH-driven anti-aging treatments.

So what’s so special about HGH when it comes to aging? Beginning in your 40s, the pituitary gland slowly reduces the amount of hormone it produces, a fact that some feel is both responsible for the frailty of age and reversible through the introduction of synthetic growth hormones.

But there is little, if any, reliable scientific evidence about the anti-aging benefits of HGH. In fact, there are no double-blind placebo-controlled studies for most of the anti-aging miracle cures out there. Yet we do know for a fact that HGH can increase the risk of cancer—not to mention edema (retention of fluids), arthralgia (joint pain), carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes, and gynecomastia (enlarged mammary glands in males).  Oh, and it might actually shorten life.

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What Rudy–and Most Americans–Still Don’t Understand about Prostate Cancer

Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani recently made the mistake of trying to turn his brush with prostate cancer into a campaign issue: “I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chance of surviving prostate cancer, and thank God I was cured of it, in the United States, [is] 82 percent. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England, [is] only 44 percent under socialized medicine,” Giuliani declared.

Rudy, of course, was wrong.

Merrill Goozner has done the best job that I’ve see of cutting through to the truth of the matter. In a Nov. 2  post titled “Columnists Miss Chance to Educate on PSA Testing,” he points out that “Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times and Eugene Robinson’s column in the Washington Post justifiably attack Rudy Giuliani’s misuse of prostate cancer stats, all but accusing him of lying.

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A Transaction Based on Trust

The consumer of health care is unlike any other consumer, and the product he purchases is unlike any other product. This is something that those who embrace “consumer-driven medicine” choose to ignore.

Advocates like Harvard Business Professor Regina Herzlinger insist that if we just
put the consumer in the driver’s seat, giving him both  transparent pricing and a little “skin in the game,” the consumer  could put a lid on health care prices while demanding the best quality care.  Herzlinger is particularly hopeful that the baby-boomers, a group she describes as “the most manipulative, the most narcissistic and the most effective generation this country has ever seen,” can do the job. (Why one would want such a group setting priorities for our health care is beyond my understanding; I’ll return to this point in a later post.)

Last week I spoke at the Massachusetts’ Medical Society’s Leadership Forum on the rising cost of care.  In two earlier posts (here and here) I’ve described what other speakers had to say about how and why Massachusetts is running into trouble trying to fund its experiment in universal care.

In my speech, I explained why I don’t think that “consumer-driven medicine” is the answer. I don’t believe the “consumer” can rein in healthcare spending.  As an alternative, I proposed a “patient-centered” model of health care which depends on patient and doctor, working together.

Begin with the flaws in the consumer-driven model. First, it assumes that the patient has the same power that a buyer has in the commercial marketplace. But in truth, the patient does not have nearly as much leverage as other consumers.

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We Can’t Fund SCHIP, But We Can Save Merck

Today, Bloomberg trumpeted the good news:  “Merck Profit Gains on Cancer Vaccine, Diabetes Pill.”

“Merck & Co., the third-largest U.S. drugmaker, reported a 63 percent gain in earnings,” Bloomberg reported, a victory made doubly by the fact that Merck has seen some rough times. “Competition from generics and the withdrawal of the pain pill Vioxx in 2004 over heart risks have pulled net income down 39 percent since 2001,” the story explained. Indeed, Vioxx gave Merck a black eye, and it’s still battling lawsuits in the courts. But Gardasil, Merck’s new vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, is turning out to be just the blockbuster the company needed. “Gardasil, introduced a year ago [already] has sales of $418 million”

Those of you familiar with my views on Gardasil may want to skip the below section, as it is pulled from an August post. I promise I won’t do this often, but this is an important subject and it’s example of how, if drug manufacturers and their lobbyists work quickly enough, they can sell their story to politicians and to the public before skeptics in the scientific community have a chance to weigh in. Remember the drug industry saying: “It’s important to sell a new drug while it’s still effective” (i.e. before people know too much about it).

On August 27, I wrote:

Earlier this month the FDA announced that the direct-to-consumer ads Merck has been using peddle its new cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, are “half-true . . .information currently being advertised could mislead the public.” 

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