Sunday, January 07, 2007

What's Making Us Sick is an Epidemic of Diagnosis

While diagnoses used to be reserved for serious illness, we now diagnose illness in people who have no symptoms at all, those with so-called predisease or those “at risk.”

Two developments accelerate this process. First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. We can detect trace molecules in the blood. We can direct fiber-optic devices into every orifice. And CT scans, ultrasounds, M.R.I. and PET scans let doctors define subtle structural defects deep inside the body. These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody: arthritis in people without joint pain, stomach damage in people without heartburn and prostate cancer in over a million people who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a cancer patient.

Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

Most of us assume that all this additional diagnosis can only be beneficial. And some of it is. But at the extreme, the logic of early detection is absurd. If more than half of us are sick, what does it mean to be normal? Many more of us harbor “pre-disease” than will ever get disease, and all of us are “at risk.” The medicalization of everyday life is no less problematic. Exactly what are we doing to our children when 40 percent of summer campers are on one or more chronic prescription medications?

Full New York Times essay here

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