Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Tag: commercial screening tests

Let the Buyer Beware

August. And online first.

Some colleagues and I had an editorial published in an academic journal last week.

I’ve written about the topic before. My colleague and I were ticked off that more and more of our patients seem to fall prey to the marketing hype around cash-based, no-doctor-order-required commercial screening tests.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for do-it-yourself medicine, provided you have some knowledge, motivation, a good attitude, and know how to get help when you need it. I also applaud the right of people to spend their money the way they want–on entertainment, or medical tests–or hey! medical tests as entertainment.

But what I don’t like is when marketers scam people. Over-sell them, over-promise them, and sell them things they don’t necessarily need to make a buck. And do it under the guise of  this could save your life!!

And tell it to you at church. Or the shopping mall. Where you’re easy prey.

What my colleagues and I want is for these commercial screening entities is to come clean: tell the customers which of these tests are actually indicated–that’s medicalese for appropriate–otherwise, people are just getting a bill of goods. Well-intentioned customers wind up with either false reassurance (the test was never indicated so of course it wouldn’t find something) or worse, unnecessary anxiety (these tests find things that require follow up-even when they shouldn’t have been done and the ‘finding’ is benign).

It’s simple, really: a disclaimer of some sort.

The problem with that is it affects their business model–their profits are predicated on being able to sell these tests to everybody, not just subsets of patients at higher risk. They prey on our naive beliefs that

  • a) more tests are good
  • b) tests are infallible and
  • c) they wouldn’t offer these tests if there was any chance of harm. Right?

When we’ve called companies that do this locally, we’re told that these are ‘recommended’ tests. For anyone.

Come clean, commercial screeners! We’re on to you…

Churchin’ Up

"You get wise! You go to church!"

You may have seen advertisements in your local paper (do you still get one of those?) or in your [junk] mail offering you health screening tests at discount prices.

  • No doctor’s order necessary!
  • Submit to all five tests  and get discount pricing!

You can take the handy-dandy results issued from these purveyors and head right over to your local doc’s office to discuss any findings. These companies want to help you (and your doctor), after all.

In their promotional materials and on their websites, these for-profit outfits offer testimonials from happy customers that screening tests “saved their lives.”

What you won’t hear from the companies is that the best medical evidence that we have would caution patients AGAINST having these tests–because the science says they don’t save lives and aren’t indicated for people in the general population. In aggregate, tests like these cause MORE HARM than GOOD.

The companies also won’t tell you that if you have one of these tests and it’s not totally normal that you’ll now be subject to repeat testing (presumably by your real doctor inside the medical system) ad nauseum and untold anxiety that you’re slightly less than perfect. That’s an example of HARM.

What I find particularly galling about these companies is that they target lambs er, people where they are most vulnerable: at their places of worship.

Who, after all, would question the well-intentioned offering of preventive health screenings (albeit for profit-making fees) at church?

Seems like a win-win: Your clergy person thinks s/he is doing a mitzvah offering a resource to the community. The doctors in the congregation, loathe to upset the apple cart, would never want to dissuade their brethren from taking health seriously. [That, and they may have some financial interest in such an arrangement.] The congregants get “health” without having to go their doctor.

Convenience. For a price.

You can read a more scholarly discussion of this phenomenon here [local paper! I still get one!]. Then the ripple rolls out a little further.

Please comment or email here if you’ve had screenings from one of these companies or worked for one. I’d love to know about your experiences.


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