Advancing a Free Society

How Beneficial is Widespread Medical Screening?

Monday, February 28, 2011

The United States along with many other rich countries encourages widespread so-called preventive screening for various diseases, including breast, prostate, and other cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney functioning, and many other serious, and even not so serious, diseases. It is often claimed that prevention of diseases should be given the highest priority in order to early detect treatable serious medical problems. But these gains have to be balanced against the considerable cost of extensive preventive screening. The US and other nations are very likely over-screening for various medical problems.

The benefits of screening depend on the seriousness of the disease, and the gain from early detection. The latter in turn depend crucially on the treatment success when a disease is detected early compared to when it is detected at a later stage. For example, treatments for both prostate and breast cancers seem to be more effective when these diseases are detected early, although that is disputed by reputable researchers and physicians. However, it is clear that early detection of Alzheimer’s’ disease has little advantage since there are no effective treatments for this highly debilitating disease. Early detection of this disease may have other advantages if that enables individuals to plan for their increasing mental feebleness, such as preparing or modifying wills, and takng other decisions that require some mental acuity. On the other hand, it may reduce quality of life by causing great fear of the impending disease.

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(photo credit: Tulane Publications)