Junkfood Science: Confusing “diagnosis” with “disease”

January 02, 2007

Confusing “diagnosis” with “disease”

An exceptional New York Times essay by doctors Welch, Schwartz and Woloshin, “What’s Making Us Sick is an Epidemic of Diagnoses,” offers a very welcome voice of reason. These doctors have been among those speaking out in the medical literature about bad science and other problems in medicine and medical reporting. Today, they wrote:

For most Americans, the biggest health threat is ...that more and more of us are being drawn into the system not because of an epidemic of disease, but because of an epidemic of diagnoses.

Americans live longer than ever, yet more of us are told we are sick.

...This epidemic is a threat to your health. It has two distinct sources. One is the medicalization of everyday life. Most of us experience physical or emotional sensations we don’t like, and in the past, this was considered a part of life. Increasingly, however, such sensations are considered symptoms of disease....Perhaps most worrisome is the medicalization of childhood.

The other source is the drive to find disease early. While diagnoses used to be reserved for serious illness, we now diagnose illness in people who have no symptoms at all, those with so-called predisease or those “at risk.”

Two developments accelerate this process. First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. We can detect trace molecules in the blood. We can direct fiber-optic devices into every orifice. And CT scans, ultrasounds, M.R.I. and PET scans let doctors define subtle structural defects deep inside the body. These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody... who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a patient.

Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

...No one should take the process of making people into patients lightly. There are real drawbacks. Simply labeling people as diseased can make them feel anxious and vulnerable — a particular concern in children.

But the real problem with the epidemic of diagnoses is that it leads to an epidemic of treatments. Not all treatments have important benefits, but almost all can have harms. Sometimes the harms are known, but often the harms of new therapies take years to emerge — after many have been exposed. For the severely ill, these harms generally pale relative to the potential benefits. But ... for the many labeled as having predisease or as being “at risk” but destined to remain healthy, treatment can only cause harm.

The epidemic of diagnoses has many causes. More diagnoses mean more money for drug manufacturers, hospitals, physicians and disease advocacy groups. Researchers, and even the disease-based organization of the National Institutes of Health, secure their stature (and financing) by promoting the detection of “their” disease. Medico-legal concerns also drive the epidemic. While failing to make a diagnosis can result in lawsuits, there are no corresponding penalties for overdiagnosis....

Follow the link above to read the complete article.

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