Early Detection Can Hurt
“The science is settled.”
It’s a phrase I keep hearing lately. It’s usually in reference to “climate change,” but it gets applied to many other aspects of science and medicine too. And each time, it just makes my blood boil.
Now, the climate change crowd are self-righteous enough to say it outright. “Global warming is real—the science is settled!” Other fields of science, and medicine in particular, aren’t so open about it but the message is the same. It’s not said in so many words but the implication is there: this is the way we’ve been doing things for twenty years. Get over it. The science is settled.
Well I have news for you, folks. Real science is never “settled,” no matter what Big Pharma and Big Medicine would like you to think. It’s the very nature of science to be unsettled, to constantly change and grow as we make new discoveries, and for ideas to be discarded and replaced by new ones. Science is constantly evolving. If the science is “settled,” then something is probably wrong.
Or someone is feeding us a big fat lie.
The first big lie—“early detection” saves lives
For years, we’ve heard that early detection is the key to saving lives. On the surface, this makes sense—the sooner you catch something, the sooner you can get treatment and the more likely you are to cure the disease. Or at least that’s how it should work. But that just isn’t how it really does work. Not in the real world—especially the healthcare world.
Keep this in mind: “early detection” programs are solutions in search of a problem.
And of course the harder you look for a problem, the more likely you are to find one. In fact, early detection programs need to find problems in order to justify their existence.
It’s not about making you healthier—it’s about cold, hard cash
Think about this: for every “screening” program out there, there’s at least one specific test or fancy piece of equipment involved. Often it’s something that was created just to “detect” this particular problem. And every time it gets used, somebody makes money. If they can’t “detect” enough problems, then someone loses money. And when the do “detect” a problem—even if it’s a false positive—there’s often a whole other round of tests and “treatments” that follow.
“Routine screenings” and “early detection” are big fat cash cows. It’s in the interest of Big Medicine and Big Pharma both to keep pushing “routine” screenings even when there’s no real benefit for you, the patient.
Early detection sounded like a good idea twenty years ago, but what have we really achieved? Sure, we’re “detecting” a whole lot more health problems, but we’re not living any longer—or any better. In fact, we’re spending a whole lot more money and getting a whole lot more treatment, but our lives—and our health—aren’t improving one bit.
Take cholesterol screenings. They’re part of routine checkups. They’re available at health fairs. They’re part of workplace wellness programs. They’re everywhere, and they often result in a prescription for cholesterol-lowering drugs—which you’re expected to stay on for the rest of your life. They often lead to more tests for other problems—which cost you even more money. Yet the science still doesn’t show any real connection between cholesterol levels and the likelihood of heart disease.
Big Pharma needs screenings to find a “problem” so they can “fix” it by selling you drugs...which you probably don’t need.
The second big lie—“routine” screenings are harmless
Many people go for annual or bi-annual screening tests with a “better safe than sorry” attitude. This isn’t necessarily so. Just because it’s “routine” doesn’t mean it’s safe—not even remotely so. And thousands of people find themselves facing the endless circle of tests leading to medical problems that require—you guessed it—even more tests and procedures to fix the problems they’ve created.
In other words, “routine screening tests” often have their own dangers—and sometimes your doctor won’t warn you about them. Colonoscopies can tear an intestine or cause internal bleeding, for example. It happens more often than anyone wants you to know. And radiation from yearly mammograms actually raises your cancer risk.
For every test, there’s a risk...and in some cases the risks or side effects may be just as bad as the problem they’re meant to “detect.”
The bigger danger, though, is overtreatment. This is the real problem with early detection programs—they often find and treat things which would never cause symptoms if they were simply left alone.
Take the story of John Cranston:
John was just 68 when his wife convinced him to have a prostate cancer screening. He didn’t have any symptoms. He had no reason to be concerned. He did it “just in case,” because the test was recommended for men over 50.
The news wasn’t good—his blood test was abnormal. His doctor sent him for a biopsy.
The specter of cancer is pretty scary, and John was terrified as he waited for the biopsy results. His blood pressure went through the roof. His blood sugar was up and down like a yo-yo. He suffered for two weeks and in the end, the biopsy came back “inconclusive.” His doctor recommended another. Afraid for his life, poor John submitted, then finally had a prostatectomy.
Two days after this “routine” surgery, John developed a blood clot in his leg, which caused a stroke.
It’s a sad story. But the saddest thing is this: examination of his prostate later showed he didn’t have prostate cancer at all. He had an infection, which skewed the numbers on his blood test.
None of it was necessary.
Stories like John’s are common. They’re the price of “early detection,” and for every person who has their life extended by a few months through early screenings, there are dozens more who have their lives ended or forever changed by overtreatment.
Today’s “settled science” is tomorrow’s “snake oil”
Once, we knew the earth was flat and you could sail off its edges. There was no question.
The science was settled.
Later, the idea that microscopic creatures—germs—could make us sick was considered crazy. After all, we knew that all disease came from imbalances in the four “humours” in the body—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm.
The science was settled.
As recently as the 1960s we knew the cure for schizophrenia was to insert an ice pick into the brain and wiggle it around, a “procedure” known as a frontal lobotomy. Experts agreed—this was the best treatment.
The science was settled.
Of course we shake our heads now at the idea of the “four humours.” We’re appalled at the idea of the ice pick lobotomy. And yet we’re told that the science is “settled” in relation to all kinds of questions—including “early detection” programs—when it isn’t the case at all.
The current “early screening” craze is bad science. Good science learns from its mistakes and discards ideas that don’t work. Bad science keeps doing the same old thing in spite of the evidence.
The science is never “settled.” If it is, it’s not really science. It’s faith. And faith belongs in church, not the laboratory...or the consulting room.
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