Gail Collins proclaims the first ten years of the new millennium “the Decade of Medical Backtracking.”
Somewhere between the reports that Pap smears and tests for prostate cancer aren’t all they were cracked up to be and the news that a high fiber diet doesn’t do anything to prevent cancer, the health establishment began looking decidedly nonomniscient. Then this week, a federal task force reported that most women don’t need annual mammograms. Even more fascinating, they suggested that doctors stop telling their female patients to self-examine their breasts for lumps.
Every rational American wants qualified experts to keep re-examining current medical practices. The only thing that bothers me about the mammogram report is all the emphasis on the “anxiety” that might follow a false-positive. We live in a time when we are constantly being reminded that a fellow plane passenger might be trying to smuggle explosives in his sneakers. We can manage anxiety.
I am going out on a limb to say that the real problem with a test that creates a lot of false-positive results is that it leads to a lot of other medical procedures, some involving hospitals. Unless you are genuinely sick, there is no more dangerous place to be hanging around than a hospital.
And let’s not forget the longer-term changes of mind on things like silicon breast implants, artificial sweeteners, and the danger of eating eggs.
Collins is right that we want medical science to constantly challenge prevailing assumptions and give us their best guess as to the truth. I continue to wonder, however, about the rigors of medical scholarship, which seems to frequently draw wide conclusions based on studies of very small, self-selected samples.