By Valerie Minard
Ben Franklin’s quip, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure,” may not always prove right – at least when it comes to medical screenings. According to the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force, medical testing may actually do more harm than good. Although initial screenings may be harmless, the resulting followup exams and treatment can be invasive and increase the chances of being harmed or overtreated.
In the United States alone, $700 billion per year goes to unnecessary tests and procedures. Not only is it harmful for the patient receiving the testing but according to Allen Frances, Professor Emeritus at Duke University, it also increases medical costs. The good news is that patients are pushing back on this model of health care and as a result, changes to the existing model and openness to alternative approaches to care are emerging.
Why has over-testing escalated? There are several reasons.
• First, “preventive” medicine has long promoted early screening and intervention to save lives.
• Second, lowering the defined thresholds of disease has widened the net to misdiagnose many people, who are not really at risk.
• Third, overdiagnosis is partly due to the highly sensitive state-of-the art scanning equipment now being used. It picks up more incidental and harmless abnormalities that were previously undetected.
What can be done? Researchers like Chris Del Mar, Professor of public health at Bond University and a member of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioner’s Red Book preventive guidelines committee, recommend retraining doctors to be more patient centered.
Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine and author of “The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It,” advocates ending pharmaceutical advertising to consumers where they promote medical conditions and drugs.
But, the most important key may come down to the patient themselves– to rethink and be responsible for their own health. Patient advocacy groups recommend getting better educated about the legitimacy of certain testing, including checking whether their doctor has any financial incentive for making that recommendation.
For others, increased prevention of disease might come in the form of regular exercise, healthy eating, or some form of complementary medicine. Another approach people are adopting is some form of mindfulness practice — from yoga and meditation to prayer and regular religious observances. These latter practices make sense given that increasingly studies are documenting the substantial role that our thinking plays in our health.
Nineteenth century spiritual healer and theologian Mary Baker Eddy understood the mental nature of disease and how overdiagnosis affects the body. She wrote: “The ordinary practitioner, examining bodily symptoms, telling the patient that he is sick, and treating the case according to his physical diagnosis, would naturally induce the very disease he is trying to cure, even if it were not already determined by mortal mind [matter-based thinking]. Such unconscious mistakes would not occur, if this old class of philanthropists looked as deeply for cause and effect into mind as into matter.”
If the cause of disease, as many studies show, actually has a mental source, perhaps we need to examine or screen our thoughts more than our bodies. Screening or filtering out negative thoughts, such as fear and hatred, relieves stress, magnifies the good in life, and improves health.
As we weed out debilitating thoughts of fear and sickness, we’ll be following Ben Franklin’s advice. We’ll be more proactive in our health care– and that kind of prevention is definitely “worth a pound of cure.”