By Kim Bellard, September 22, 2016
Digital rectal exams (DREs) typify much of what's wrong with our health care system. Men dread going to go get them, and -- oh, by the way – they apparently don't actually provide much value. By the same token, routine pelvic exams for healthy women also don't have any proven value either.
The recent conclusions about DREs come from a new study. One of the researchers, Dr. Ryan Terlecki, declared: "The evidence suggests that in most cases, it is time to abandon the digital rectal exam (DRE). Our findings will likely be welcomed by patients and doctors alike."
The study actually questioned doing DREs when PSA tests were available, but it's not as if PSA tests themselves have unquestioned value. Even the American Urological Association came out a few years ago against routine PSA tests, citing the number of false positives and resulting unnecessary treatments.
Indeed, the value of even treating the cancer that DREs and PSAs are trying to detect -- prostate cancer -- has come under new scrutiny. A new study tracked prostate cancer patients for ten years, and found "no significant difference" in mortality between those getting surgery, radiation, or simple active monitoring.
The surgery and radiation, on the other hand, had some unwelcome side effects. Forty-six percent of men who had their prostate removed were wearing adult diapers six months later, and impotence was reported in 88% of surgical patients and 78% of radiation patients.
As for the pelvic exam, about three-fourths of preventive visits to OB-GYNs include them, over 60 million visits annually. They're not very good at either identifying or ruling out ovarian cancer, and the asymptomatic conditions they can detect don't have much data to indicate that treating them early offers any advantage to simply waiting for symptoms.
Or take mammograms. Mammograms are uncomfortable, have significant false positive/over-diagnosis rates, and costs us something like $4b annually in unnecessary costs, yet remain the "gold standard."
Then there is everyone's favorite test -- colonoscopies. Only about two-thirds of us are getting them as often as recommended, and over a quarter of us have never had one. There are other alternatives, including a "virtual" colonoscopy and now even a pill version of it, but neither has done much to displace the traditional colonoscopy. And all of those options still require what many regard as the worst part of the procedure, the prep cleansing.
The final example is what researchers recently called an "epidemic" of thyroid cancer, which they attributed to overdiagnosis. In fact, according to the researchers: "The majority of the overdiagnosed thyroid cancer cases undergo total thyroidectomy and frequently other harmful treatments, without proven benefits in terms of improved survival." Not only that, once they've had the surgery, most patients will have to take thyroid hormones the rest of their lives.
All of these examples happen to relate to cancer, although there certainly are similar examples with other diseases/conditions (e.g., appendectomy versus antibiotics for uncomplicated appendicitis).
1. If we're going to have unpleasant things done to us, they better be based on facts
2. We should do everything we can to make unpleasant things, well, less unpleasant:
Let's get right on those.