How an Overdiagnosis Can Be Harmful

Although we have been conditioned to believe that an early diagnosis is beneficial to our health, that is not always the case. According to H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, an early diagnosis can be a significant problem for modern medicine.

In his most recent book, Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health (Beacon Press, 2011), Dr. Welch and coauthors Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin wrote about the dangers of searching too much for illnesses in healthy individuals. They also mentioned that there may be no advantage to undergoing extra procedures, which may result in harm, more expensive health care, and psychological damage. Having worked as a practicing physician for 25 years, Dr. Welch gave a talk entitled “Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health” in which he discussed the negative aspects of the rising tendency toward early diagnosis.

He gave the talk only weeks after a recommendation by a government panel that discouraged healthy men from continuing to have a standard PSA blood test to screen for prostate cancer because the test fails to save lives, and is frequently followed by treatments that cause unnecessary pain, impotence and incontinence. Dr. Welch says that the most crucial issue is that overdiagnosis prompts overtreatment, and all treatments are harmful to some extent.

Furthermore, in a study that was recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Welch and Dartmouth researcher Brittney A. Frankel deduced that the lives of the majority of women with mammogram-detected breast cancer were not saved by mammography screening. In Dr. Welch’s view, the screening certainly helped some women, but its lifesaving value was dubious. The study found that only 3 to 13 percent of women benefitted from the test, which detected breast cancer in 60 percent of women.

Nevertheless, there has been much focus on the importance of screening. Dr. Welch says that is because the medical and public health communities have magnified its benefits and minimized its harms.


If you were injured due to an overdiagnosis, and its resulting treatments, contact our medical malpractice attorneys today.

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