Is There Such Thing As Too Many Health Screenings?

We all want to maintain our health and that of our loved ones, and having certain tests and treatments can help. But there is a growing acknowledgment that in some cases there’s too much testing and treatment, and this is causing harm.

Canada is part of the Choosing Wisely campaign, which engages doctors and patients in discussions about what tests and treatments are helpful and harmful, mainly in the area of screening.

The earlier cancer is found, for example, the better the chance of cure. And screening tests, such as the Pap smear, which identifies precancerous cells on the cervix before they turn into cancer, is a good thing.

The problem is that some other screening tests are not as good— breast examinations, for example, have not been shown to decrease morbidity and mortality from breast cancer.

In fact, they can lead to anxiety and unnecessary testing, with its own risks.

Others coming into question include regular blood tests and electrocardiograms during annual check­ups (another thing which is of questionable value).

Before doing tests, doctor and patient need to agree that it is of value and what they are going to do with the results.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, “House Call,” p. 24.

Dr. Zachary Levine is an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University Health Centre and medical correspondent for AM740 (a ZoomerMedia property).

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