Hospitals and now even doctors’ offices have become dangerous places, especially for the vulnerable young.
The US medical system is geared, quite frankly, to the overtreatment of patients. There are many reasons for this. There is the threat of medical malpractice lawsuits if the doctor does less rather than more. There is the increasing tendency for someone other than your doctor to decide what your treatment will be, whether the hospital, practice administrators, insurance companies, or medical societies. Then there are the financial incentives to overtreat because of the way medical bills are paid.
Case in point: Vermont has one of the most homogenous populations in the nation, so one might expect health problems to be evenly distributed. Yet there is a huge variation in the number of medical treatments people receive. For example, in Middlebury, a now-classic study showed that only 7% of children had their tonsils removed, while in Morrisville, 70% did. This had nothing to do with the condition of the patients—only the doctors’ aggressiveness in removing tonsils, with very little difference in the children’s health after treatment.
Interestingly, a study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that almost half of the doctors who set clinical guidelines for diabetes and cholesterol from medical societies or government agencies in the US and Canada between 2000 and 2010 had financial conflicts of interest.
It’s bad enough when unnecessary treatments are pushed on adults. It’s far worse when doctors try to convince worried parents that their children need more treatment than they actually do. The daughter of an ANH staff member, for example, has ectodermal dysplasia (ED), which is a mild genetic disorder that impacts the growth of her teeth, nails, and hair; in others with the condition, the disease can be more pronounced, affecting eyes, sweat glands, and all sorts of additional areas.
“So far,” she reports, “doctors have tried to convince us to sedate her and have an electrocardiogram on her eyes (at age two!), have a full mouth x-ray to see what is happening with her adult teeth growth (at age four!), and so so on. There have been additional suggested tests, none of which we have elected to have her undergo. ED is a rare disorder, and the docs at Hopkins wanted, I believe, to collect information for their research, none of which would have changed our course with our daughter. By the way, because of the natural health treatments she received, our daughter is now a completely normal six-year-old with no problems whatsoever!”
Vaccines are another area where children are regularly subject to overtreatment. And mainstream medicine keeps developing more and more ridiculous but also potentially dangerous vaccines that children will inevitably be subject to. The latest is a vaccine to prevent smoking—which includes an antibody that is genetically engineered, no less!
The vaccine makes the liver produce antibodies that attack nicotine before it can reach the brain and therefore trigger addiction. The researchers took the genetic sequence of an engineered nicotine antibody and put it into a virus that they had engineered to not be harmful. They also included information that directed the vaccine to go to hepatocytes, that is, liver cells. The antibody’s genetic sequence then inserts itself into the nucleus of the hepatocytes, and these cells start to churn out a steady stream of the antibodies. This was all very clever, no doubt, but let’s not pass laws mandating this for our children. They are not guinea pigs.
As the National Health Policy Forum notes, “All [medical]services carry risks and, in the case of unneeded services, these are not balanced by benefits.” Not only that, but overtreatment carries a huge financial cost. According to George Washington University’s National Health Policy Forum, overspending is costing the healthcare system $210 billion a year, most of which is due to unnecessary services. The American College of Physicians sets the cost of excessive testing alone somewhat higher than that—as much as $250 billion per year. MIT healthcare economist Dr. Jonathan Gruber cites estimates that about $800 billion—or nearly one-third of all healthcare spending—is wasted in unnecessary diagnostic tests, procedures and extra days in the hospital.
“We spend between one-fifth and one-third of our healthcare dollars on care that does nothing to improve our health,” writes award-winning journalist Shannon Brownlee, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former writer for US News & World Report. Her new book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, documents how between 20 and 30 cents of every health care dollar we spend goes toward useless treatments and hospitalizations, toward CT scans we don’t need, and toward ineffective surgeries.
Speaking of CT scans, they are often used on children during emergency room visits. Between 2000 and 2006, Medicare spending on imaging services also more than doubled—with over a 25% increase in advanced imaging techniques like nuclear medicine and x-ray computed tomography (CT scans), with an estimated 62 million CT scans per year in the US (up from 3 million in 1980).
The problem, of course, is that CT scans have been linked to cancer. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine says that the radiation from CT scans may cause of as many as 1 in 50 future cases of cancer. And a new study published in The Lancet show that CT scans in children can significantly increase the risk of leukemia and brain cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer won’t show up for many years, while in the short term it allows hospitals to bill for the unnecessary scan.
The problem is compounded because one doctor or hospital does not know how many other CT scans the child may already have had. This can lead to very high levels of radiation exposure, as we discussed in another recent article.
MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging scans) are also performed excessively. Medicare data show that doctors often order MRI scans for patients with lower back pain instead of prescribing less invasive, less expensive treatments such as physical therapy. An MRI, which costs about $3,000, also frequently leads to even more expensive surgery.
There is also an overabundance of cesarean sections being performed. According to the CDC, births by C-section rose 53% between 1996 and 2007 nationwide, and jumped more than 70% in six states (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Washington).
The American College of Physicians identified thirty-seven clinical scenarios where screening was unnecessary and did not promote the patients’ health, among them electrocardiograms to screen for cardiac disease in patients at low to average risk for coronary artery disease; coronary angiography in patients with chronic stable angina who have well-controlled symptoms; and exercise electrocardiograms even for low-risk, asymptomatic adults.
Regular readers will recall our report from last year in which we discussed an epidemic of prostate, breast, and colon screenings—and the terrible infections, complications, and spread of cancer that can result from such procedures. As always, a natural approach to healthcare is not only the least expensive, it is also safest and often most effective.
What to do about all this overtreatment? First of all put the patient back in charge of his or her own care, and that of children. Second stop the federal government censorship of health news and information. Third introduce prices—yes real prices—again so that both practitioners and consumers can find out what procedures cost. It’s not rocket science. But it is getting worse, not better.
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