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Probe Finds Vast Overuse of Routine Cancer Screenings

Routine Cancer Screenings
Routine Cancer Screenings

A new study from iWatch News has revealed that about 40 percent of what Medicare spends on common preventive cancer screenings goes toward tests that may be medically unnecessary. This vast overuse has profound national implications. It affects millions of Americans and levies an enormous unnecessary financial burden on the entire healthcare system.

The investigation found that between 2003 and 2008, Medicare spent close to $2 billion on routine cancer screenings for patients who did not need to be tested because they were older than government-recommended age limits. iWatch Newsobtained the data from a six-year sample of Medicaid billing records.

An excerpt from the iWatch News article:

Terry Waddell knew that her 87-year-old mother did not have long to live. The woman’s organs were shutting down because of old age, she said, and her arthritic body had withered to 80 pounds.

So, when Waddell received a call about her mother’s health, it was not what she expected. A visiting nurse had noticed a bit of blood between the frail woman’s legs and wanted her screened for cervical cancer.

Waddell, of Houston, regrets that she took her mother for the test. She refused to let doctor’s aides weigh her, she said, protesting that getting her mother out of her wheelchair was too arduous a process. Then came the actual exam, which she said “was painful to watch.” Her mother struggled to open her legs wide enough for the procedure and then lay there, quietly crying.

“I blame myself for not stopping this,” said Waddell, whose mother died two months later.“It was totally unnecessary.” Unnecessary, perhaps, but surprisingly common.


Why are screenings overused?

Why do so many people receive tests more frequently than medically recommended or at times when the tests can’t lead to any proven medical benefit? A big reason is that patients ask their doctors for them. Many doctors administer the requested tests for financial gain or out of fear of malpractice suits, despite the fact that scientific guidelines suggest the patients should not be screened.

Who determines screening guidelines?

A panel of independent medical experts called the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (PSTF) provides detailed recommendations and guidelines about who should be screened and which tests offer more benefits than risks. However, the iWatch News study found that many doctors ignore the PSTF’s standards, which are not mandates.


Which screenings are the most overused?

Breast cancer screenings, with more than 22 million mammograms ordered for women who were at or over the PSTF’s recommended age limit. Other screenings that were overused include those for:

  • cervical cancer (more than 13 million claims over the upper age limit)
  • colon cancer (more than 10 million claims over the upper age limit)
  • prostate cancer (more than 6 million claims over the upper age limit)


What are the implications of unnecessary screenings?

It’s important to remember that along with the benefits of appropriate screenings, the tests also pose certain risks. In some cases, cancer screenings can cause more harm than good, as the screening process itself can cause injuries or even death. Furthermore, the high costs of unnecessary screenings drive up the cost of healthcare for everyone. Unnecessary screenings can lead to other expensive tests and treatments that can lead to additional waste of resources. Follow-up exams and procedures can be among the most expensive part of the screenings.

To help avoid unnecessary screenings, take these steps:

1. Discuss with your doctor what the PSTF’s recommendations are for various screening tests before requesting one.

2. Don’t assume that you need a screening based on medical advertising.

3. Work with your doctor to determine appropriate screenings based on your age and medical history.


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