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Here’s why I always say no to these types of cancer screenings
Unfortunately, all humans — including docs — are subject to unconscious bias — bias that may result in your getting unnecessary and costly cancer screenings that do more harm than good.
You would think that “more screening” is good — but it’s not. Today’s newsletter is super important because it could save you from years of grief.
Here’s how doctor’s bias works, and what you can do to make sure you don’t become a victim of bad biases/good intentions.
Jaws, the lotto, and availability bias
As I mentioned before, biases are common to humans.
One of the biases that influences human behavior on a regular basis is called availability bias.
Availability bias — the tendency to judge the frequency of an event by how easy it is to recall examples from memory.
Essentially, what this means is that we tend to judge things by how we FEEL about an event, rather than the real statistics of how often an event is likely to happen.
Because you’ve seen Jaws and have daydreamed about what you would do with the Powerball jackpot (sure, you’d give half of it to charity…), it’s easy to pull up vivid, emotional representations of these events. The availability of these events in your mind overshadows the much more common, much more mundane reality that you have 1-in-292,201,338 chance of winning Powerball, and even among beachgoers, the chance of being attacked by a shark is only about 1-in-11,500,000. Still, availability bias makes you overestimate the likelihood of each, keeping you out of the water and in the corner store buying tickets.
And this kind of availability bias doesn’t just influence lotto tickets and swimming in the ocean, it can influence what kind of tests your doctor orders for you.
Availability bias and unnecessary, expensive, worrisome tests
Before I REALLY get into this, I’ve got to tell you that I’m not a doctor and this is in no way medical advice. I can’t tell you to not get a preventative test or to get one.
But I can make you aware of the cutting-edge research that’s out there so that you can make your OWN decisions.
You see, testing guidelines for things like prostate cancer screenings and breast cancer screenings are based on statistical models.
(I think some of these models are VERY flawed, but that’s a newsletter for another day.)
But doctors who have had personal experiences with cancer tend to use that EXPERIENCE, or availability bias, to give too many cancer screenings.
Survey results from 497 primary care physicians show that doctors who have had cancer themselves, or experienced cancer with a family member, close friend, or coworker, are 17 percent more likely than doctors without personal cancer experience to act against established guidelines to recommend that low-risk women receive ovarian cancer screening.
Now, lots of people think extra screenings are really no big deal.
But medicine isn’t an exact science…
…and even forgetting about the cost of the screenings themselves, there are also many false positives that can occur with screenings…
…which can cause all sorts of problems with overtreatment.
“Some people may think, what’s the harm in doing testing that’s not indicated? I’m going to get a negative test and it’ll make my patient feel better. But if you find something, it can lead to further follow up, causing complications, cost, and anxiety,” Ragland says.
Unfortunately, that overtreatment can take the form of biopsies, surgeries and even chemotherapy.
That’s NOT a good thing.
I don’t think the doctors have bad INTENTIONS here.
But what can happen (and often does) is that when doctors give out too many tests they can end up treating stuff that doesn’t need to be treated.
Before you let your doctor test you for ANYTHING, make sure that you understand what the benefits, guidelines and risks are.
This isn’t always the case of “better safe than sorry.”
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