Public Health Experts Need to Reclaim the Phrase “Preventive Medicine”

“Preventive medicine” is a hot phrase in discussions of health reform. If we just get more people (why not everyone!) screened we can find disease early and save money by attacking these diseases before they become serious and expensive.

But this use of  ‘prevention’ is expensive. Or said another way: There’s a lot of money to be made in this kind of ‘prevention’.

True preventive medicine prevents disease: Reducing airborne particulate matter and pollution prevents incidence of asthma. Funding schools to provide healthy meals prevents childhood obesity. Eliminating the use of lead in paint prevents abnormal development in exposed children.

We must recognize that health screening technologies are not tools to prevent disease; rather, they are tools of early detection of disease. In a sense they define disease. Indeed as screening tools increase in specificity, the thresholds in defining disease status follow in their specificity. Certainly, early detection may give the upper hand to the patient and provider who can implement treatments that reduce the likelihood of that condition becoming life-threatening. But do all abnormalities warrant medical intervention?

Screening technologies such as MRIs are become increasingly sensitive to discovery. In his book How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman, M.D., cites a physician: “The hateful part of MRIs – I mean they can be a wonderful technology – but they find abnormalities in everybody.” No doubt, part of the rise in the number of chronic conditions can be attributed to our increased ability to find abnormalities, even though not all abnormalities may warrant a medicinal response.

Screening tools do not and cannot prevent abnormalities. They can only find abnormalities.

The primary driver of health care costs is medical technology. Earlier detection coupled with expensive (yet often unproven) interventions have reduced mortality while increasing morbidity. Indeed, many diseases which even 15 years ago would have been a death sentence have now become manageable chronic conditions (HIV/AIDS is an obvious example). This is a testament to our ability to innovate and develop life saving technologies.

Simultaneously, technology has improved our ability to detect ‘disease’ while ensuring chronic care management through pharmaceuticals and/or invasive intervention through biopsies and more. Today, more than half of all Medicare beneficiaries have more than 5 chronic conditions. Soon it will not be uncommon for the bulk of Medicare beneficiaries to have eight or even ten chronic conditions.

One article published in the New England Journal of Medicine notes:

The demands of the public for definitive wellness are colliding with the public’s belief in a diagnostic system that can find only disease. A public in dogged pursuit of the unobtainable, combined with clinicians whose tools are powerful enough to find very small lesions, is a setup for diagnostic excess… Clinical medicine can only say, “With the methods we used, we found none of the diseases we looked for.” No one can measure the absence of all disease. (emphasis mine)

The unfortunate reality is that it is possible to over ‘prevent’ (to use the expensive version of the word). What is needed is not a halt on innovation nor a moratorium on technology. Rather what is needed is a conscious assessment as to when to screen and when treatment is necessary.

The decision as to when to do what should be made between physician and patient, but information is needed to build suggestive guidelines. Health IT, allowing for the aggregation of (anonymous) data, can help.

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2 responses to “Public Health Experts Need to Reclaim the Phrase “Preventive Medicine”

  1. I completely agree, Jon! It is amazing how many public health people don’t even realize that when they are saying “prevention” they really mean screening. On the surface, I think that the whole idea of “secondary” and “tertiary” prevention is a legacy of the clinician-public health profressional tension. There is certainly a place for screening and treatment in public health — but why call it prevention when that only serves to confuse and mislead?

  2. Pingback: Public Health Experts Need to Reclaim the Phrase “Preventive Medicine” « a blog to Read

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