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September 2015 Archives

By Dr. Allen Frances  

Two years ago, I wrote that the first "PREVENTING OVERDIAGNOSIS" conference was easily the most important meeting I had ever attended. http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3920844

Last week's third "PREVENTING OVERDIAGNOSIS" conference, held at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC was even better. The conference was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute in collaboration with Oxford University, the British Medical Journal, Consumer Reports, and Bond and Dartmouth Universities. Hundreds of presentations covered the causes, consequences, and cures of overdiagnosis from every conceivable angle and laid out an agenda for future action. The international audience of 350 was as bright a group as I have ever encountered in almost 50 years of attending medical meetings. 

The topic is the highest priority public heath problem we face in the US and increasingly around the world. Medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the US- and are often occasioned by excessive testing and treatment delivered in an uncoordinated way by doctors who know lab tests, but don't know their patients.

Clearly, too much medicine can be very bad for your health. And it is also a disaster for the health of our economy. The US spends $3 trillion a year on heath care- more than the GDP's of all but four countries in the world. Because one third of this enormous investment is sheer waste, it is no surprise that we get lousy outcomes compared to countries that spend much less, but spend much more wisely. 

The biggest culprit in overtreatment is over testing. We have developed sophisticated technology that discovers incidental 'diseases' that would have little or no impact on our lives and then treats them with disproportionately blunderbuss interventions that often cause more harm than good. Rates of breast, prostate, and thyroid cancer increased dramatically not because people are sicker, but because disease definition has been broadened to inflate diagnosis. Much of what is now called 'cancer' is not really cancer at all, or so slow growing that it is not really health or life threatening.

Aggressive treatments that are delivered for non-aggressive 'diseases' cause more problems than they solve. Our current excess of therapeutic zeal follows a long historical tradition of well intended, but overly exuberant, doctors harming their patients with really terrible treatments. Not so long ago, doctors routinely bled their patients, gave them emetics and cathartics, and poisoned them with heavy metals. Future observers of our current practice will find some of what we are doing now equally wrong headed and harmful. 

Diagnostic inflation has also resulted in overtreatment of diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, attention deficit disorder, most problems that lead to orthopedic surgery, and lots more of what constitutes everyday medical practice. 

Overtreatment is driven by many powerful and interacting forces and will be difficult to tame. 

Most destructive has been the commercialization of medicine as a big business- healing art transformed into profitable cash cow. Perverse financial incentives encourage disease mongering, false advertising, over testing, quick diagnosis, and unnecessarily aggressive treatment.

Often the best medical decision is to cautiously watch and wait, but this is discouraged by reimbursement mechanisms that favor quickly jumping in with potentially harmful, very expensive, and often unnecessary treatments. The powerful medical-industrial complex will exert all its considerable financial and political might to protect its profits, even if this means compromising patient welfare and eating up the economy. The obvious solution here is to substitute capitation for crazy fee-for-service incentives that reward the health system for doing more.

Too much medicine has also been driven by a medical research enterprise that systematically rewards scientists, journals, and the media for hyping often-false positive findings. Negative findings that would encourage the public to have a healthy skepticism about exaggerated claims are buried. 

The result: patients accept, and even clamor for, testing and treatment that is more likely to harm than help. People fear the risks of illness too much and fear risks of treatment far too little. A great deal of conference time was thus productively devoted to the communication tools necessary to help right this imbalance. Patients must become informed consumers to balance the benefits of treatment with its risks and protect themselves from a system pushing them to always want more than may be good for them. 

Regulators of medical excess no longer regulate. Seven years ago, the Food and Drug Administration, approved only one third of drug applications. This year, it has approved 96%. And drug companies are increasingly winning the right to mislead both the public and physicians, with false advertising and pushing off-label prescription.  

Quality Assurance programs also play an unwitting role. Historically, QA has focused on identifying the things that should have been done during the course of treatment, but were left out. As a result, nine tenths of QA measures tap errors of omission, only one-tenth errors of commission. Unless this imbalance is redressed, QA will continue to drive doctors to do too much, even in situations where less would be more.  

Unless applied cautiously, 'Personalized' or 'Precision' medicine may make things worse, becoming the next slick advertising gimmick to justify the use of treatments that have failed to prove their effectiveness in large groups. A more precise medicine would offer much less, not more, treatment. 

The battle to tame medical excess is classic David vs. Goliath. But, fortunately, David has some potentially effective pebbles and might sometimes does come from being in the right. Thirty years ago, Big Tobacco seemed as impregnable as the medical-industrial complex, but it was toppled by its obvious outrageousness, dedicated opposition, public and media awakening, and lawsuits. The same combination, along with the inevitable need for cost containment, will eventually tame the medical beast- the question is how long will this take and how much harm will be done to patients and the economy before we get back to patient-driven, rather than profit driven medicine. 

The conference wasn't perfect. There was a preaching to the choir feeling. Future conferences should invite debate with leaders from the forces promoting overtreatment- e.g. the insurance industry, Pharma, hospital associations, physician specialty groups, and consumer advocacy. Government and employers wind up footing the lion's share of medical costs and need to hear how much of their expenditure is not only wasteful financially, but also bad for the people they are trying to help. 

The conference was attended by about a dozen science writers interested in the topic, but it did not itself become the big media story it can and should be. More intense public relations could lead to numerous stories alerting the public about which specific tests and treatments are most overdone and most risky. 

 And there could have been more discussion about how best to unite the various groups fighting against medical excess and hype. 'Choosing Wisely'; the Lown Foundation's 'RightCare' initiatitive; the HeathNews Review; the British Medical Journal; Consumer's Reports; and the many researchers and educators engaged in the field are all individually wonderful, but might collectively be more effective if their efforts were better coordinated.

Bottom line: Medical marvels are oversold and overbought. Doctors need to be more humble and safety-conscious. We can't overstep our knowlege base without putting our patients at risk. Patients and doctors need to accept the uncertainty and limits of medicine. False certainty leads to terrible decisions.

We must not ignore the most important ethic in medicine laid out 2500 years ago by Hippocrates: First Do No Harm.

Ask Expert Hollis About Your Child


Dear Reader:

We are starting a new monthly column where you can get your special education and intervention questions answered by an expert. Parents, teachers, and administrators can receive valuable information. Please send your questions to hdannaham@gmail.com.

About the expert: After 30 years serving complex learners of all age groups as a special education teacher, reading specialist,  school leader, and clinical learning specialist, Hollis Dannaham, M.Ed., now consults with schools to design intervention and special education programs, coaches teachers and administrators, and provides professional development workshops. 

Dear Hollis:

I am a middle school principal who is trying to implement a Response to Intervention program in my school. I am having a problem with scheduling since I can't pull student's from their classes. What can I do?

Well Intentioned in Westchester


Dear Well Intentioned,

You are not alone! Scheduling is one of the greatest challenges when implementing an RTI program. Try carving out an intervention period for each grade level. During this period the grade is broken into homogenous groups and all teachers are on deck. The RTI students get small group remediation from the specialists, students struggling in a content area get an extra period with that content teacher, and high achieving students are given extension projects to complete. All student benefit. Let me know how it works out!

In Service, Hollis 


Dear Hollis,

I am a parent of a 6 year old with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Every morning is a battle to get out of the house. I can't get my son to complete basic routines. What can I do?

Signed, Frustrated in New Jersey


Dear Frustrated,

Try creating a picture, morning routine chart. Take a piece of card stock, draw a line down the middle and on the top left write the words "To Do" and on the top right, put the word "Done." Then laminate it. Find pictures of each of the activities you want your child to complete. For example, get out of bed, brush your teeth, etc.. Keep the list to four items maximum. Place velcro hooks down both sides of the chart and velcro loops on the back of each picture. Have your child move the picture from the "To Do" side to the"Done" side after each task is completed. If all pictures are moved to "Done," then give your child a small reward. Good Luck!

In Service, Hollis

Violence and Urban Schools


Urban schools mirror the communities they're in. Unfortunately, all too often that mean that violence and substance abuse make their way into our schools. Neither should be tolerated. 

Most kids will pretty much do as the adults around them say provided the message is clear and consistent. And the message needs to be zero tolerance for violence. If there's a fight, all parties should be suspended, regardless of who started it. The message also needs to be no weapons allowed here, and not I don't want to see any weapons here. This implies active vigilance in weeding out those who carry knives, box cutters, and guns to school.

Restorative justice sounds nice, but from my experience, is rarely effective. It clouds the message for students, just as sending misbehavers to a "safe room" and serving them doughnuts. Given that so many of our youngsters are hungry, that alternative sounds too attractive and incites transgressions.

Not that suspensions need to separate students from their schools for very long. In fact, a suspension should be an excuse for a guidance conference with the kid and her family. The goal must be to return the student to her classes as quickly  as possible.

These policies were in place during my 18 year tenure as the first Principal of The International High School at LaGuardia Community College. While there were a number of students each year who received a "Principal's Suspension," I am proud of the fact that during my nearly two decades at the school not a single student received the more serious and longer "Superintendent's Suspension."

Educators make a commitment to parent to serve in loco parentis; that is, in the place of a parent. As such, our primary responsibility is maintaining a safe environment for our students. When other students threaten that safety, the school needs to act decisively.

Submitted by:

Eric Nadelstern

Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership & Director of the Summer Principals Academy, Teachers College Columbia University

Ahead of the International Day of Peace, which is marked each year on September 21, the U.S. Institute of Peace has created the Peace Day Challenge. We aim to raise the visibility of this day, to frame peace as an attainable alternative to the violence we see daily in the news, and to encourage individuals and communities across the U.S. and beyond to take an action for peace, to share it at #PeaceDayChallenge, and then to sustain it beyond the day. Learn more, and get involved at www.peacedaychallenge.org! Because Peace is Action, and it starts with You!

After living in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, it was a great opportunity to retreat to the green state of Maine where I spent my fourth summer at Camp Takajo. In Naples, Maine, you never hear honking horns, sirens screeching, and never get caught in traffic jams. As the buses rolled into camp, we were greeted by counselors who brought us to the cabins where we would be living for the next seven weeks. 

Takajo offers many different activities ranging from soccer to sailing and lacrosse to photography. The counselors encourage you to try a wide variety of activities and as a result, get you to try new things. Before my first summer at Takajo, I had never tried sailing. Now, making my way down to the dock and hopping into a sailboat is my favorite activity at camp.

Although Takajo is a sports camp, it also offers many other activities such as canoeing, video, woodworking and photo. I had an amazing experience this past summer on a project I worked on in Photography. I took a panorama photo of the Takajo waterfront and started working. I spent the next several weeks laboring over my masterpiece, an enormous 5ft by 2ft collage. It was a fun experience and I was happy to tote it back to New York and hang it in my room.

After archery, lacrosse, laughing with my friends, movie night, and white water rafting, it was finally time to go back home. It will be difficult to return to the concrete jungle and to daily activities of homework and exams, and sitting in a classroom all day instead of being on a lake. 

About Me

Homeroom is the place to go for quick news on what is happening in education around the world. Remember how you had to check in to homeroom for attendance and daily schedule changes in intermediate school as well as high school? Education Update has created this section...Read More

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