The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

The Myth of Prevention: Letter to the Wall Street Journal

Healthcare

The June 20-21, 2009 Wall Street Journal Weekend Journal featured a provocative front page article written by physician, Dr. Abraham Verghese:

The Myth of Prevention

While eloquently written, I took issue with a few crucial points. Here is the letter I sent to the Editor at Wall Street Journal:

Dear Wall Street Journal Editor,

Re: Dr. Abraham Verghese’s article, The Myth of Prevention in the June 20-21, 2009 Weekend Journal.

I believe a more suitable title for Dr. Verghese’s article would be: “The Myth of What Passes as Prevention.”

As a practicing cardiologist, I, too, have witnessed firsthand the systemic “corruption” described by Dr. Verghese, the doing things “to” people rather than “for” them. Heart care, in particular, is rife with this form of profit-driven health delivery.

There is a fundamental flaw in Dr. Verghese’s otherwise admirable analysis: He assumes that what is called “prevention” in mainstream medicine is truly preventive.

Dr. Verghese makes issue of the apparent minor differences between preventing a condition and just allowing a condition to run its course. Prostate cancer screening is one example: Men subjected to repeated screenings have little length-of-life advantage over men who just allow their prostate to suffer the expected course of disease.

What if, instead, “prevention” as practiced today is nothing more than a solution that has been adopted in mainstream practice to suit yet another doing “to” strategy than doing “for”? In the prostate cancer example, PSA and prostate exam screenings often serve as little more than a means of harvesting procedures for the local urologist.

That’s not prevention. It is a prototypical example of “prevention” being subverted into the cause of revenue-generating procedures.

I submit that Dr. Verghese has fallen victim to the very same system he criticizes. His views have unwittingly been corrupted by the corrupt profit-driven system he describes.

What if, instead, prevention were just that: prevention or elimination of the condition. What if “prevention” of prostate cancer eliminated prostate cancer? What if heart disease “prevention” prevented all heart disease? What if this all proceeded without regard for profit or revenue-generating procedures, but just on results?

Dr. Verghese specifically targets heart scans or coronary calcium scoring, a test he likens to “miracle glow-in-the-dark minnow lures,” calling them “moneymakers.” Yes, when subverted into a corrupt algorithm of stress test, heart catheterization, stent, or bypass, heart scans are indeed a test used wrongly to “prevent” heart disease.

But what if the risk insights provided by heart scans prompt the start of a benign yet effective “prevention” program that inexpensively, safely, and assuredly prevents--in the true sense of the word--or eliminates heart disease? Then I believe the differences in mortality, quality of life, and costs would be substantial. Such strategies exist, yet do not necessarily include prescription drugs and certainly do not include the aftermath of heart catheterization and bypass surgery. Yet such programs fail to seize the limelight of media attention with no new high-tech lifesaving headline nor a big marketing budget to broadcast its message.

The problem in medicine is not prevention and its failure to yield cost- and life-saving results. It is the pervasively profit-driven mindset that keeps true preventive strategies from entering mainstream conversation. It is a repeat of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis’ late 19th-century pleads for physicians to wash their hands before delivering babies to reduce puerperal sepsis, ignominious advice that earned him life and death in an asylum. We are essentially continuing to deliver children with unwashed hands because there is no revenue-generating procedure to clean them.

No, Dr. Verghese, the economic and medical failings of preventive strategies are not at fault. The failure of the medical system, in which everyone is bent on seizing a piece of the financial action for himself, has resulted in the failure to support the propagation of true preventive strategies that could genuinely save money and lives.

President Obama’s goal of cultivating preventive practices in medicine can work, but only if the profit-motive for “prevention” does not serve as the primary determinant of practice. Results-driven practices that are applied without regard to profit have the potential to yield the sorts of cost-saving and life-saving results that can reduce healthcare costs.

House, MD
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Medical Director, The Track Your Plaque Program (www.trackyourplaque.com)
Blog: http://heartscanblog.blogspot.com