Boundless enthusiasm for Overtreatment

Last week in Slate, sent along by my friend Maryse whose blog, Frogheart  covering nanotechnology, art, technology and so on is immensely popular (one tries very hard not to be too envious of her close-to-a-million visitors daily), based on an update in the respected Cochrane Review: how treatment of mild hypertension essentially useless.

What neither piece points out is that what we call “mild hypertension” today (systolic 140-159) was considered essentially normal a scant fifteen years ago. Well, 140 anyway. Or that thoughtful (often older) clinicians would not consider this hypertensive in older patients today.

Ah, it’s just a number people. A number, determined by a group of individuals, often cardiologists but also other “experts” (many of whom have ties to the drug companies who make antihypertensive drugs) as to what should be considered “normal”.

I’ve spent much of my research career debunking this notion of “normal”.  Particularly as it pertains to physiology, biology and humans, who, as we all know, tend to come in a variety of shapes and sizes and whose health status is determined by many variables, not the least of which is how much money they have and how happy they are in their lives.

Women, of course, have long been outside this matrix – normal consisting essentially of the male body without its circadian rhythms and cyclic hormonal elements, never mind pregnancy or menopause.  The vast majority of clinical trials, the gold standard of evidence as it has been called, excluded woman altogether and even when they tried to bring them in often women themselves wouldn’t play ball.

The reasons seemed complex, social, domestic, personal, economic and psychological.  Women generally have been socialized to be risk averse, which means if they are told they have condition X then they want the damn treatment. They don’t have time to worry about whether or not they’re taking the placebo. Plus, large multi-centre trials require the time not to mention transportation to get to those bi-weekly weigh-ins or tests or what-have-you and women, particularly women over 40 tend to be overwhelmed with children and grandchildren and ageing parents and work and housework and life. “Who’s got the time to enter a trial?” most will ask. “I’ve barely got time to sit down never mind volunteer my time at a clinical trial.”

No doubt there are other reasons but at this point I haven’t researched it. I just know that women are vastly underrepresented in what we optimistically consider evidence-based medicine.

I see something inherently male and American in this perspective, this enthusiasm for aggressive treatment (as the cultural critic Lynn Payer in her wonderful book Medicine and Culture once remarked, there has to be something culturally satisfying in the notion of ‘aggressive’ given how often the term is used in American medicine; even the recommendations for gentler treatment of newborns was advised to be pursued aggressively).  Or overtreatment.

Cross cultural studies have repeatedly shown that countries like Canada, which can’t afford as many cardiac surgeries and procedures as the U.S., as well as countries like Finland, which simply doesn’t believe in them, have the same outcomes as the U.S. In other words, Americans spend huge amounts of time and money doing things – cardiac bypass, cardiac catheterization, stents, etc. – but cardiac patients are no healthier than in countries where they do half the number per capita. All that activity doesn’t result in better health or lower morbidity or mortality.

Less is often more in medicine. And bodies are fragile. Drugs, surgeries, procedures, tests: these are not benign. They exact a toll on the body. And all for what?

All because somebody somewhere decided they know what was best and what magic number was “normal” blood pressure.  Or what an artery “should” look like in a person with no symptoms.

The worst part is that as patients we are complicit in this, increasingly believing that more is better – and reject the notion of watchful waiting, considering a physician who says, “just take it easy for a while, it’ll get better on its own” a quack. So, fewer and fewer physicians say such things. As a doctor once said at a conference I was at: It’s easier to just write the prescription that to take twenty minutes to explain to a patient (who’s not going to believe you anyway) why she or he doesn’t really need it.

But hey, we wouldn’t want to miss out on something that could be really terrific now, would we?!