Critical Condition

Preventive Medicine May Not Be Worth a Pound of Cure

President Barack Obama has claimed that whatever health-care reform package he signs into law will be funded by exploiting savings within the current system. He frequently cites preventive medicine, the early detection and treatment of illness, as a means to save money — despite piles of data showing that preventive medicine does not in fact save money.

This week brought the news — on the front page of the New York Times, no less — that preventive medicine might not even bring the best health outcomes. According to the Times:

The American Cancer Society, which has long been a staunch defender of most cancer screening, is now saying that the benefits of detecting many cancers, especially breast and prostate, have been overstated. It is quietly working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasize that screening for breast and prostate cancer and certain other cancers can come with a real risk of overtreating many small cancers while missing cancers that are deadly.

For preventive medicine to be effective, incurable-late stage malignancies must be diagnosed earlier in their course at a time when they can be treated. The Times article suggests that, instead, for certain kinds of cancer, innocuous tumors that never would have become clinically relevant are being diagnosed and treated unnecessarily. This exposes patients to significant side effects, and comes at a huge financial and emotional expense. Aggressive deadly cancers, meanwhile, still persist.

Of course, it would be asking too much to expect the Times to connect the dots — to observe how the mounting evidence challenging both the economics and effectiveness of preventive medicine relates to the president’s case for health care reform. Still, we can at least note that the president’s argument flies in the face of the facts — even the facts deemed “fit to print.”

— Jason D. Fodeman, MD is a former Health Policy Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of How to Destroy a Village: What the Clintons Taught a Seventeen Year Old.