Healthy hit by a plague of over diagnosis of conditions that will never cause serious symptoms
06:34 GMT, 30 May 2012
Healthy people are being harmed by the trend to ‘overdiagnose’ conditions that will never cause serious symptoms, say medical experts.
Millions of adults at low risk are being told they may eventually suffer diseases that require drugs for life, according to an analysis.
But the decision to hand out such information is often made on lower thresholds of evidence than in the past, it is claimed.
Overdiagnosis: Millions of adults at low risk are being told they may eventually suffer diseases that require drugs for life, according to an analysis
Overdiagnosis is harming the healthy who are afflicted by anxiety and over-treatment and it wastes resources on unnecessary care, say specialists writing for the British Medical Journal.
Changing diagnostic criteria are increasing the numbers of ‘sick’, causing ‘virtually the entire older adult population to be classified as having at least one chronic condition’ claim the authors.
Research suggests one-third of people diagnosed with asthma may not have the condition, up to one in three breast cancers detected through screening may never have led to symptoms and some women at low risk of breaking bones are being harmed by osteoporosis treatment.
Around eight million Britons take statins for high cholesterol levels, some of whom have not had a heart attack or stroke
Around eight million Britons take statins for high cholesterol levels, some of whom have not had a heart attack or stroke, but there is pressure for even lower risk people to take them at younger ages.
Co-author Ray Moynihan, senior research fellow at Bond University in Australia, said overdiagnosis wastes 128billion a year in the US alone.
He said: ‘Increasingly we’ve come to regard being “at risk” of future disease as being a disease in its own right. Evidence mounts that we’re harming the healthy.’
Controversially, the experts believe the benefits of early diagnosis, particularly of cancer, have been oversold to patients.
‘Contrary to popular notions that cancers are universally harmful and ultimately fatal, some cancers can regress, fail to progress or grow so slowly they will not cause harm before the individual dies from other causes,’ the authors claim.
Such cancers include prostate, breast and thyroid cancer, the bulk of which will never harm.
The overdiagnosis trend is being driven by the cultural belief in early detection, fed by a deep faith in medical technology.
Vested interests are also to blame, along with legal and health systems that punish underdiagnosis, say the authors.
Proposals for change include revising disease thresholds to reduce treatment for people at low risk of ill-health.