Doing harm by doing good

I’m a baseball fan. Weekend mornings I always listen to Ed Randall, one of the more knowledgeable and listen-able baseball analysts; he really knows the game and has a style that is modest yet insightful. For years Mr Randall has been a tireless advocate for prostate cancer screening, and by his efforts he has likely encouraged thousands of men to get tested.
As much as I admire Mr Randall’s expertise in baseball and desire to do good, he’s really doing a disservice to public health. While his efforts undoubtedly result in an increased early diagnosis of many cancers, they are also increasing costs, scaring many men and their families, and likely harming a portion of men who follow his advice.
In his quest to get as many men tested as possible, Mr Randall is causing as least as much harm as good.
First, a little background about prostate cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, between 27 percent and 37 percent of men between 55 to 74 years of age have prostate cancer. It is a very slow growing cancer; most men who have it end up dying of something else.
The ugly truth about prostate cancer testing is it doesn’t work. The most common test, a blood test known as PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) is terribly inaccurate. Men who have been tested have no better survival rate than men who have not.
This isn’t my opinion, it is the finding of research published in The Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006. The authors found that neither a PSA test, nor a rectal exam reduced the chance of death from prostate cancer.
OK, so what’s the problem? Men get tested, no harm no foul? Actually there are lots of problems. First they aren’t free – PSA tests range in cost from $70 – $200, dollars that could be saved or spent on more effective medical services. OK, what happens if you decide the heck with the cost, I’m going to get a PSA test. The PSA level can be abnormal even when a man does not have prostate cancer. Seventy percent of positive PSA tests are false positives; the patient does not have prostate cancer. (if you test negative, there’s only a one-to-two percent chance you still have prostate cancer.) Of course, those who test positive worry about the result, and think they may well have cancer. I don’t know how to place a value on peace of mind, but anyone who has worried about a positive cancer test certainly knows how scary it is. (
When an abnormal P.S.A. level is discovered, most often the next step is a biopsy. Which are often inconclusive. Tissue from a negative screening may have come from parts of the prostate that are free of cancerous cells. If a cancer is found, an operation may not be necessary; remember this cancer grows so slowly most victims die of something else. So, you get an operation, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is patients who undergo treatment (radiation and/or surgery) may well end up impotent (38% – 63%) or incontinent (13% to 52%) or have bowel issues (5% to 17%. As a fifty year old man, I don’t much like those odds.
This doesn’t mean testing is futile or pointless. There are undoubtedly many men who would have never discovered their cancer until it had progressed quite far; the men in this group have to thank people like Mr Randall – on a personal level, he has undoubtedly helped save them. But there’s a societal cost for that benefit. Here’s one physician’s view (from the NYTimes):
“I’m a little worried we may look back on the prostate cancer screening era, after we learn results of clinical trials, and see that we’ve harmed a lot of people without doing them good [emphasis added],” said Dr. David Ransohoff, a professor of medicine and cancer screening researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “By being so aggressive with so many people, did we do the right thing? I don’t know that it’s going to turn out that way.”

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