The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently advised that most women don't need mammograms as early or often as previously believed. Now you can't turn on a TV without some reporter telling us how angry Americans are about this.
What is Doctor D's take on the new guidelines?As a working clinician I trust the USPSTF. They have no agenda-axe to grind and spend a lot of time studying mountains of data. These experts meticulously examine the thousands of studies that I just don't have time to read. They crunch numbers and come up with carefully considered recommendations.
While I can understand all the public concern, I am irritated that many doctors seem eager to jump on the irrational bandwagon.
What no one seems to comprehend is that even relatively safe tests and treatments can still be deadly. Doctor D has hurt some very nice people with the "right" treatment because all medical interventions have risks.
Men can also get Breast Cancer, just less often. Men die of this disease. Would screening every male "save lives" by catching some early cases? Probably. Would there be lots of false positives? Absolutely. Would the number of men we maim or kill with work-ups and treatments outnumber the lives saved? Almost certainly. Hence the need for evidence-based guidelines.
Breast Cancer is a horrible disease, so it was worth a try to screen women in their 40's. But now we have years of data indicating that we hurt more low-risk women than we helped. Uh-oh! It's one thing to hurt people with what we hope will be the right intervention, but when we hurt people by doing something we know doesn't work it's shameful. The same thing happened with prostate screening for men. We don't need to keep doing things that don't work.
We have a natural bias towards doing something rather than doing nothing. People expect doctors to "do something!" Doctors like to do things for patients. Hence over-testing and over-treatment run rampant in all fields of healthcare. Sometimes we make educated guesses at interventions and hope they work, but when we have evidence showing we aren't helping people, it's time to acknowledge that doing nothing is safer and wiser.
The trouble is that the guidelines are based on mountains of studies that the public, politicians, and many doctors are unequipped to evaluate for themselves. So we go for next best thing: anecdotal evidence. We base our opinions on heart-wrenching stories of women in their 40's that died of Breast Cancer. All the evidence in the world is no competition for a really moving story.
What the USPSTF needs to do is come up with a convincing narrative. Stop referring to data that nobody understands and give your arguments a human face! Parade the widowers of and orphan kids of women that died as the result of a workups for false-positive mammograms in front of every TV camera you can find. Get doctors up on stage and have us apologize, "Sorry, we did what we thought was best, but now we know we were wrong. We'll do better in the future."
Doctor D realizes he'll probably loose some readers over this post, but somebody had to defend the USPSTF against this crayzee smear campaign.
Feel free to post your thoughts, but please don't accuse me of "not caring about women's lives." I follow the recommendations because I care about women, and I've been saying the same thing about PSA in men for a while.