How come up to 250,000 people a year die of medical errors and is the third leading cause of death in the USA (Makary & Daniel, 2016)?
Why are some drugs recalled after years of use because they did more harm than good?
How come arthroscopic surgery continues to be done for osteoarthritis of the knee even though it is no more beneficial than mock surgery (Moseley et al, 2002)?
How come women have more negative side effects from Ambien and other sleep aids than men?
Is it really true that the average new cancer drug costs about $100,000 for treatment and usually only extends the life of the selected study participants by about two months (Szabo, 2017; Fojo, Mailankody, & Lo, 2014)?
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine”—Dr. Marcia Angell, longtime Editor in Chief of the New England Medical Journal (Angell, 2009).
Medical discoveries have made remarkable improvements in our health. The discovery of insulin in 1921 by Canadian physician Frederick Banting and medical student Charles H. Best allowed people with Type 1 Diabetes to live healthy productive lives (Rosenfeld, 2002). Cataract lens replacement surgery is performed more than three million times per year and allows millions of people to see better even though a few patients have serious side negative side effects. And, there appears to be new hope for cancer. The FDA on August 30, 2017, approved a new individualized cancer treatment that uses genetically engineered cells from a patient’s immune system to produce remissions in 83 percent of the children and young adults who have relapsed after undergoing standard treatment for B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (FDA August 30, 2017). The one-time treatment for this breakthrough cancer drug for patients who respond costs $475,000 according to the manufacturer Novartis. Yet, it will be years before we know if there are long term negative side effects.
The cost of this treatment is much more than the average cost of $100,000 for newly developed and approved cancer drugs which at best extend the life of highly selected patients on the average by two months; however, when they used with more typical Medicare patients, these drugs often offer little or no increased benefits (Szabo, 2017; Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 2: (Drug) Trials and Tribulations).
As the health care industry is promising new screening, diagnostic and treatment approaches especially through direct-to-consumer advertising, they may not always be beneficial and, in some cases, may cause harm. The only way to know if a diagnostic or treatment procedure is beneficial is to do long term follow-up; namely, did the treated patients live longer, have fewer complications and better quality of life than the non-treatment randomized control patients. Just because a surrogate illness markers such as glucose level for type 2 Diabetes or blood pressure for essential hypertension decrease in response to treatment, it does not always mean that the patients will have fewer complications or live longer.
To have a better understanding of the complexity and harm that can occur from medical care, listen to the following three Freakonomics Radio episodes titled Bad Medicine.
Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 1: The story of 98.6. We tend to think of medicine as a science, but for most of human history it has been scientific-ish at best. In the first episode of a three-part series, we look at the grotesque mistakes produced by centuries of trial-and-error, and ask whether the new era of evidence-based medicine is the solution. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/bad-medicine-part-1-story-98-6/
Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 2: (Drug) Trials and Tribulations. How do so many ineffective and even dangerous drugs make it to market? One reason is that clinical trials are often run on “dream patients” who aren’t representative of a larger population. On the other hand, sometimes the only thing worse than being excluded from a drug trial is being included. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/bad-medicine-part-2-drug-trials-and-tribulations/
Freakonomics Radio episode, Bad Medicine, Part 3: Death by Diagnosis. By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. How can that be? And what’s to be done? Our third and final episode in this series offers some encouraging answers. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/bad-medicine-part-3-death-diagnosis/
Angell M. Drug companies and doctors: A story of corruption. January 15, 2009. The New York Review of Books 56. Available: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jan/15/drug-companies-doctorsa-story-of-corruption/. Accessed 24, November, 2016.
Fojo, T., Mailankody, S., & Lo, A. (2014). Unintended consequences of expensive cancer therapeutics—the pursuit of marginal indications and a me-too mentality that stifles innovation and creativity: the John Conley Lecture. JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 140(12), 1225-1236.
Makary, M. A., & Daniel, M. (2016). Medical error-the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 353. Listen to his BMJ medical talk: https://soundcloud.com/bmjpodcasts/medical-errorthe-third-leading-cause-of-death-in-the-us
Szabo, L. (201, February 9). Dozens of new cancer drugs do little to improve survival. Kaiser Health News. Downloaded September 3, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/02/09/new-cancer-drugs-do-little-improve-survival/97712858/