August 21, 2013
A discussion on Twitter caught the eyes of my colleagues yesterday, and raised a very interesting question: should insurance companies be allowed to do PSA testing to detect prostate cancer on men as a condition of getting insurance?
What started the discussion was a blog post by a well-known and respected medical blogger who goes by the name "Skeptical Scalpel." In his blog he detailed the saga of a 56 year old man who had a pre-employment physical in order to be covered by his new company's health insurance plan. He was not informed that he was going to have a PSA test. It was just done as part of the process. No informed consent, no nothing, just stick out your arm, have blood drawn, and register your surprise that the test was done once the results come back.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends against any man having the test to detect prostate cancer. Even among those who say the test is an option, -including the American Cancer Society-recommend that a man have a full, informed understanding of the pros and cons of PSA testing before getting the test, given the uncertainties of whether it really saves lives and the known frequency of side effects associated with treatment for prostate cancer. None of those recommendations were part of the consideration for this man when he was examined for his insurance plan.
You can imagine what happened: his PSA was slightly elevated at 5.9. He was "rated" by the insurer, charged an extra $200 a month for his health insurance, and may well have to have a number of additional studies. Not to mention that he may have prostate cancer, and may undergo more treatments-as a result of a test that is of uncertain value for most men. And, by the way, the odds are overwhelming that the gentleman in question does not have prostate cancer, but will have to go to considerable lengths (and some risk) to find out. Because he had not discussed the test, he did not have the opportunity to prepare for it correctly, so his reading may have been falsely high; we'll never know. And, if he does have prostate cancer, as reflected in the USPSTF recommendations, he has a significant chance of having long term side effects from the treatment, but little proven benefit in terms of saving his life. More...
August 14, 2013
We've all heard the phrase, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Well, that saying may hold particular relevance while reviewing a new research report published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The report is an important one. It is an 18 year follow-up of a study designed to show whether the use of the drug finasteride could reduce the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer. The study was called the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial and when it was initially reported in 2003 it showed that the drug could reduce the incidence of prostate cancer by almost 25%. However, there was a catch: there was actually an increase of almost 27% in the number of high grade-or more serious-prostate cancers in the group treated with finasteride compared to those men who did not get the drug. The men in this trial were followed very closely. Since this trial was done in an era when PSA testing to find prostate cancer "early" was part of routine care, these men were screened regularly with the PSA test.
The originally reported results of the trial meant two things to the researchers: first, finasteride was successful in reducing the frequency of prostate cancer, but most of that decrease was in the lower grade, less harmful forms of the disease, and second, it raised the question of whether the drug actually promoted more serious forms of prostate cancer. Some experts argued that in fact there weren't more numerous high grade tumors, only that finasteride made it easier to find them thanks to the fact that it shrinks the prostate.
The debate on the relative merits of using finasteride has continued since. Suffice to say, the use of the drug didn't get much traction. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration added information to the drug label that finasteride and similar drugs could increase the frequency of more lethal forms of prostate cancer and that the drugs were not approved for prostate cancer prevention.
Meanwhile, organizations such as the American Cancer Society have suggested that men should make an informed decision as to whether or not they really want to be screened for prostate cancer with PSA testing, and the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men should not be screened at all for the disease. But the impact of finasteride on reducing the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer and "the rest of the story" remained unanswered. At least until now. More...
August 09, 2013
A newspaper story last week caught my eye when it headlined: "Senators Revive Push for End-of-Life-Care Planning." It reported on new legislation making the rounds in Washington to address care planning for those with advanced illnesses.
You remember "end of life care planning," don't you? It was part of the Affordable Care Act debate several years ago, and quickly became translated into "death panels" where opponents made the argument that the government wanted to help people decide not to receive needed treatment. That was a moment that will live in my memory forever, and it's not a pleasant memory.
So here we are with this new bill, and a headline that suggests we may be headed down the same path once again. This time, however, I hope we can have a more rational and appropriate discussion about an issue that is rapidly evolving in cancer care, supported by medical evidence and medical professionals, not to mention organizations like the American Cancer Society who believe the time has come to engage our patients, their families and caregivers, and the nation at large in understanding the need for compassion as we care for patients with serious illness, including cancer. More...
August 06, 2013
There was a memorable scene in the movie "The Graduate" from 1967. You may know it or have heard of it, when the older man turns to the college graduate and says the future is all about one word: "plastics."
Well, plastics may have been then, but this is now. And the core themes I keep hearing these days there are two central ones that our becoming our new "plastics" in medicine: genomics and big data. Words that didn't mean much to most people a year or so ago now occupy front and center discussions at every level, not to mention are the topics of a number of meetings I have attended recently.
This past week I went to one of those meetings (sponsored by e Health Initiative) where over 450 people spent two days hearing from experts about the meaning, uses, and precautions that come along with "big data" in medical care. (Interestingly, there were also several presentations on the intersection of genomics and big data. So the two are definitely not mutually exclusive.)
Not that medicine is unique: big data is transforming much of the way we live and the way we experience life. What is different about medical care is that we are so far behind everyone else when it comes to adopting and effectively using information technology and data analysis to improve healthcare. But that is quickly changing. The power of technology is just beginning to impact health care as hospitals and doctors' offices increasingly adopt (and adapt to) health information technology, but it takes lots of resources and commitment--both human and financial--to make that happen. More...