Overdiagnosis is becoming a major health problem in Australia, with new research finding too many people are being prescribed unnecessary treatments and given labels they don’t need when it comes to their health.
The latest findings, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found both healthcare professionals and patients can drive overdiagnosis and that many are wasting their time and money that could otherwise be spent on genuine needs. Researchers said that more tests and treatments aren’t always better and that reversing the harms of overdiagnosis is becoming a major health care priority in Australia.
The formation of the Wiser Healthcare Research Collaboration on Overdiagnosis – an alliance of clinical, consumer, research and public organisations – is striving to tackle the growing problem.
As many as 500,000 people may have been overdiagnosed with thyroid cancer across 12 countries over 20 years, with researchers noting pulmonary embolism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and pre-diabetes amongst the health conditions highly likely to be overdiagnosed.
“There is increasing recognition of the need for some form of coordinated national response to develop evidence-informed strategies that can fairly and safely deal with the problem of overdiagnosis,” senior research fellow Ray Moynihan said in a statement. “As a result, new relationships are being built between clinicians, researchers, stakeholders and decision makers around this counterintuitive health challenge, and a national response is emerging.”
Researchers said there are many factors that can contribute to overdiagnosis, including the belief that more tests and treatments are better, financial incentives at the health system level, an evolution in technology that makes it easier to identify smaller and more minor abnormalities, professional fear of missing disease, as well as public expectation that clinicians and health professionals will do something.
A number of recommendations were made by the study’s authors to address the problem, including evidence-based public awareness campaigns, system incentives that reward quality over quantity, better management of the problem of expanding disease definitions, better evaluation of the accuracy and utility of diagnostic tests, more professional education about overdiagnosis and greater promotion of shared decision making.
Researchers said harm caused by medical treatment had dated back centuries, although evidence surrounding overdiagnosis and overuse of treatment and medication was relatively new.
“At this time, the implications of this evidence for clinicians, consumers and the health system remain unclear,” researchers said. “However, with public funding for research initiatives, Australian researchers are at the forefront globally in attempts to understand the nature and extent of overdiagnosis and how to effectively deal with it.”