Overdiagnosis Of Illnesses Is Harmful
May 31, 2012

Overdiagnosis Of Illnesses Is Harmful

Connie K. Ho for RedOrbit.com

For some time, prevention and early detection were thought to be the best ways to treat illnesses. However, a new study describes how these two factors have unknowingly driven up the number of overdiagnoses. In a feature published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Ray Moynihan, a Senior Research Fellow at Bond University in Australia, states that "overdiagnosis poses a significant threat to human health by labeling healthy people as sick and wasting resources on unnecessary care."

"The challenge is to work out which is which, and to produce and disseminate evidence to help us all make more informed decisions about when a diagnosis might do us more harm than good,” the authors of the feature wrote.

Overdiagnosis happens when people are diagnosed and treated for conditions that are not harmful to them.

“As evidence mounts that we're harming the healthy, concern about overdiagnosis is giving way to concerted action on how to prevent it,” said Moynihan in a prepared statement.

The feature is in conjunction to the promotion of the “Presenting Overdiagnosis” conference that will take place this upcoming September. The conference is hosted by BMJ and The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy.

"The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice has long been a leader in understanding and communicating the problems of overdiagnosis," commented Drs. Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz, professors of medicine at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, in the statement. "We are extremely excited to host this international conference to advance the science and develop concrete proposals to reduce overdiagnosis and its associated harms."

According to Moynihan, Professor Jenny Doust and Professor David Henry, many factors are making overdiagnosis more and more prevalent; some of these items include cultural issues, commercial interests, and legal incentives. For example, there is an increasing amount of over-sensitive exams that detect “tiny” abnormalities that never fully develop. The lowering of treatment thresholds and the widening definitions for disease also makes it so people are at lower risk for diseases and are giving life-long therapies that aren´t beneficial to them. These wasted resources could better be used to serve patients who have genuine illnesses.

"As a side effect of our improving diagnostic technology, overdiagnosis is a rapidly growing problem; we must take it seriously now or suffer the consequences of overtreatment and rising health care waste,” explained Professor Paul Glasziou from Bond University (www.bond.edu.au) in Australia, a leader in evidence-based research.

Furthermore, Moynihan believes that overdiagnosis stems from the belief in prevention, early detection, and advanced medical technology.

"Increasingly we've come to regard simply being 'at risk' of future disease as being a disease in its own right," explained Moynihan.

The “Preventing Overdiagnosis” Conference aims to increase awareness and develop methods to prevent the problem.

"The harm of overdiagnosis to individuals and the cost to health systems is becoming ever clearer. Far less clear is what we should do about it. Next year's conference is an important step towards some evidence based solutions,” remarked Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the BMJ, in the statement.