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They Said What has always noted the complete and utter worthlessness of screening the stuffing out of employees. The wellness vendor response to this observation? To double down on overscreening. One recalls the immortal words of the great philosopher Inspector Louis Renault: “Owing to the seriousness of this crime, I’ve instructed my men to round up twice the number of usual suspects.”
Here is one such vendor, the lucky recipient of a follow-up profile to be published next month.
Their litany of tests before my initial observations about their overscreening were published:
Their current roster of tests, setting a new wellness industry record:
However amusing it may be to remark on the rampant epidemic of very stable genius-itis in the wellness industry (and it is), screening the stuffing out of employees is no laughing matter. It is harmful. Here is the current Journal of the American Medical Association on the harms of screening. Unfortunately the entire article is behind a paywall, but the abstract basically highlights the wellness industry business model:
Overused tests and treatments and resultant downstream services generate 6 domains of negative consequences for patients: physical, psychological, social, financial, treatment burden, and dissatisfaction with health care. Negative consequences can result from overused services and from downstream services; they can also trigger further downstream services that in turn can lead to more negative consequences, in an ongoing feedback loop.
This is of course exactly what hyperdiagnosis is all about — and the poster child for hyperdiagnosis is none other than the winner of the 2017 Deplorables Award, Interactive Health. A single Interactive Health display captures it all, the breathless braggadocio about sending employees to the doctor because they flunked one or more of the 43 tests that Interactive Health runs, with no regard for the harms that JAMA has identified:
So, in all seriousness, can we please, please stop the hyperdiagnostic madness and start screening according to the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines?
The wellness industry is the Maginot Line of workplace health. While wellness vendors are imploring employees to eat more broccoli, and hyperdiagnosing the stuffing out of them to find “newly discovered” conditions that are mostly false positives and harmless out-of-range readings, really bad stuff has been happening that has somehow eluded this industry’s attention. One would be the opioid epidemic, which no vendor seemed to notice. Except Optum, whose HRA basically advises employees to get more pills for their pain.
(Do you know more than Optum does about opiods Take this quiz and find out.)
The other would be the explosion of harms caused by the healthcare industry itself, and that is the subject of The Bleeding Edge, a well-received new documentary (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 89%) on Netflix. (In case anyone is keeping score at home, Quizzify is also about harms caused by the industry…and already educates employees to avoid most of what The Bleeding Edge covers.)
The Bleeding Edge follows victims of three different kinds of implants — vaginal mesh made by Johnson & Johnson, metal-on-metal hips made by Johnson & Johnson (are you seeing a trend here?), a birth control device financed in part by the current head of the FDA — along with briefer cameos for CAT scans and the DaVinci robot.
Interviews of victims of these implants (including one who started out as a spokesperson for these implants) are intertwined with surgeries and images of devices gone haywire inside the victims’ bodies, and expert talking heads about how this could be allowed to happen. (“More evidence is required to remove a device than to approve it.”) The experts are very well-credentialed and include the long-time head of the FDA, David Kessler, and bestselling author and Johns Hopkins accountability guru, Dr. Martin (“I love what Quizzify is doing”) Makary.
Perhaps the most compelling interview, though, is with the aforementioned former spokesperson for the birth control device-turned-victim advocate. Switching sides like this never happens. Most people pick a side and stay on it, facts be damned. Switching sides after seeing new facts is almost unheard of — it would be like Ron Goetzel not only admitting that wellness doesn’t work, but blowing the whistle on his friends at Wellsteps and Interactive Health.
The difference was that this spokesperson was also a customer…until her device went badly astray as well.
What is the FDA doing about this?
So what, as the film describes, is the FDA doing to put the kibosh on all this? Four things:
- Facilitating approvals of new devices on almost no evidence
- Laughing out loud on videotape at the idea that they may get in trouble because some people could get harmed
- Hiring industry executives to regulate their friends and companies they have invested in
- Firing experts who advocate for disclosures of hazards.
Yes, we know it isn’t always about Quizzify but #4 specifically relates to the hazards of CAT scans. The FDA apparently fired nine employees for advocating what we here at Quizzify have educated patients on — right on our landing page quiz — for three years: the radiation hazards of CT scans, especially repeated scans. Your doctor isn’t telling you about this risk possibly because everyone at the FDA who would have told them is gone.
Likewise, the FDA takes a hands-off approach on the DaVinci robot, another Quizzify whipping boy, though we weren’t the first to question their integrity. The FDA let the company put the robot into the hands of completely inexperienced surgeons, and multiple cases have been reported in which a woman’s insides literally fell out following the surgery.
Many doctors — especially “leading experts in the field” — get directly or indirectly compensated to use and pitch these devices. Your doctor could be one of them, and it’s not like he or she is going to volunteer the information.
What should employers do?
It seems that the only people who truly advocate for the patient are the patient and the patient’s family. Everyone else involved in the care conversation makes more money when employees buy more things on the employer’s dime. (This is not to say all providers or device manufacturers are corrupt, or anything close to that, of course. But with all this money at stake, shareholders interest and patients’ interest could be at great variance. One need only look at stock prices to see which side usually wins.)
Likely much the opposite of what they are doing now. First, stop obsessing with screens and risk assessments. Prying, poking and prodding doesn’t work, so get over it. Start focusing on things that matter, like the harms described in this film and like what Atul Gawande says:
Virtually every family in the country, the research indicates, has been subject to overtesting and overtreatment in one form or another. The costs appear to take thousands of dollars out of the paychecks of every household each year…Millions of people are receiving drugs that aren’t helping them, operations that aren’t going to make them better, and scans and tests that do nothing beneficial for them, and often cause harm.
At the very least, employers should slow down before encouraging the opposite, incentivizing employees to use lower-cost settings to get things that they may not need, and may even harm them. Obviously (with the exception of childbirth, which is going to happen anyway), removing the economic disincentive to get more stuff means people will get more stuff.
Instead, educate your employees, using Quizzify or some other tool like Quizzify (good luck finding one), that, as we say at Quizzify and as anyone who watches The Bleeding Edge will say:
Just because it’s healthcare doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
I (Vik) have not written a blog post for TSW in some time. Al is quite capable of regularly exposing the wellness industry’s foibles, an easy task given that there is an endless supply of material, and it multiplies faster than bunnies.
However, I occasionally have an up-close-and-personal interaction that is well worth recounting. My son and I recently visited our dentist for the ritualized annual cleaning and check up. We only go once a year, because as a clinician myself it’s been patently obvious to me for some time that twice yearly cleanings, the benefits of which last only until the next burger, and dental check-ups, which are just a search for billable things to fix, are no more beneficial to the health of my mouth than they are to any other part of my body. What matters is the daily routine of brushing and of avoiding sugar-laden foods. Unless you’ve been sleeping through emerging research, you know by now that I am not the only person to reach this conclusion.
Then I met K, a registered dental hygienist I’ve never previously interacted with at our dentist’s office in the St. Louis suburbs. Within 60 seconds of me reclining in the exam chair, the following exchange took place:
K: “I see that you don’t like having x-rays taken. Is there a reason?”
Me: “There is no evidence that screening x-rays have clinical value.”
K: “Do you have dental insurance?”
K: “Do you pay for the dental insurance?”
Me: “How is it any of your business how I get the coverage?”
K: “Because if you have dental insurance, the cleanings and x-rays are free, so there is no reason for you to not get them.”
Me (growing increasingly annoyed and now zeroed in like a laser beam): “The dental insurance is part of the compensation package my wife’s employer provides her. Nothing is free. There is a cost to everything.”
K: “Oh, I guess that’s right. Well, anyway, you should have the x-ray to prevent future problems.”
Me: “What your evidence that x-rays prevent problems? X-rays don’t prevent anything. It’s just a way for you to look for things that may or may not ever amount to anything, except that you can paid to deal with them.”
K (now slowly realizing that she has perhaps ventured out of her exceedingly small safe zone): “The American Dental Association….”
Me: “The American Dental Association? That’s not evidence; that’s a trade group. I am not here to get x-rays [I am completely asymptomatic and have a wonderful, clean, healthy mouth], and that’s not open to negotiation.”
K: “Well, if you don’t have x-rays at least once every three years, we will be happy to refer you to another practice [a ‘policy’ never once articulated to me in six years of going to this dental practice], and that’s not open to negotiation. I also need you to sign a waiver that you declined the x-ray against our advice.”
Me: “Have you read any of the new research about dental industry practices, such bite wing x-rays, twice yearly exams, and even flossing. There’s no evidence for any of it. The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, they’ve all covered it. Have you seen any of it?”
K: “Finding things early [on x-rays] is how you prevent problems.
Me: “Prove to me how that’s the case. You are 100%, utterly and completely wrong, and nothing you’ve told me is evidence.”
At that point she got up in a huff and left the exam room, returning after two or three minutes to, finally, blessedly, actually do her job instead of showcasing her ignorance.
My point in recounting this exchange is this: all the hulabaloo about consumer directed healthcare is garbage if the consumer is faced with quasi-professionals like K, who is blissfully unaware of basic health economics, let alone the changing character of the science and the evidence base for her occupation. According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, there are 200,000 dental hygienists, and over 10 years, that figure will grow by nearly 19%. Suppose, conservatively, that each of these hygienists does two cleanings daily over 200 working days per year. That’s 80 million consumer interactions like this one where the paying customer is subjected to intrusion, clinical mythology, deception, and the threat of “dismissal” from the practice for non-compliance with a non-evidence based, but cash-producing pointless clinical service. How many consumers are willing to tell their hygienist or anyone else in a white coat (or, in her case, the custom embroidered frock) that they are wrong?
K, who apparently has either no access to the Internet or no interest in professional improvement, was the very image of an unprofessional professional, with no sense of the notion that she’s not in charge of the relationship. I’m the customer, through the good grace of my wife and her employer, who are the payers. K did a masterful job of channeling the wellness chimera of Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Rajiv Kumar, spouting the virtues of overprevention today, overprevention tomorrow, overprevention forever.
For all her ill-informed foaming at the mouth about what’s good for me, here’s what stuck with me, and what I plan to explore further: she, on behalf of the practice, threatened to “fire” me as a client for failure to have an x-ray. There is no legal requirement anywhere in the Missouri Dental Statutes or Rules for me to submit to any radiograph. Nor do the statutes or rules state that a dental office is permitted to dismiss a client for non-compliance with voluntary and discretionary clinical service. What I’d really like to know (enterprising anti-trust lawyers should contact me) is if this is common practice in St. Louis or Missouri more broadly and if yes, how it came to be so.
Can you spell C-O-L-L-U-S-I-O-N? I’ll bet K. can’t.
A little addendum from Al. The other thing these folks do is “screen” you for mouth cancer. I declined the screen. The hygienist said I was making a mistake, that she has found 9 cases in the last three years. Doing the math, if she is average, dental hygienists are finding 600,000 cases a year of mouth cancer. No easy feat considering there are only about 45,000 new cases a year, almost all of which occur in a small segment of the population — tobacco chewers and alcoholics — to which I don’t belong. I didn’t have to sign anything and she didn’t threaten to “fire” me, but otherwise it was the basically the same experience Vik had.
Wellness is about pushing employees into the healthcare system, almost always both against their will and their better judgment. This story is a perfect example of the consequences of how too much healthcare can be hazardous to your health, and why your best defense against overdoctoring is knowledge.
Once you start asking questions, doctors have to start answering them. While many doctors welcome that, others start fidgeting. If your doctor is one of the latter, it’s probably time to switch.
I myself get occasional bladder tumors. Ironically — and once again, showing the unintended consequences of wellness — I got bladder cancer from eating more broccoli, which of course is exactly what wellness programs would have us do. (And which, in all fairness, is generally a good idea.) The problem was that the broccoli was grown in a garden that was way too close to railroad ties, which leach creosote into the soil. Creosote causes bladder tumors.
So every few years, one grows back and has to be scooped out “non-invasively” (that’s easy for the doctor to say). And every year I go in and get checked, also “non-invasively”. After my last check, the urologist — a new one, whom I had never seen before — suggested a CT scan of the kidneys and ureters.
I asked her why, and she said, because I had had bladder cancer for 15 years and never had this scan.
I replied: “Well, I founded a company, Quizzify, that educates on overutilization. CT scans have 500 times the radiation of x-rays, and that particular set of views is likely to spot tumors on my adrenal glands that are completely clinically insignificant, and yet once spotted will be tracked and possibly removed, for no good reason other than that they are there.”
She said: “OK, why don’t we just start with a urinanalysis.”
From a hazardous and likely counterproductive $1000 scan to a $10 urinalysis in 30 seconds. That’s what knowledge is worth.
By Vik and Al
SSM Healthcare is one of the nation’s largest hospital and healthcare systems (more than $3 billion in annual revenues). Based in St. Louis, Vik happens to live in their catchment area, and he was recently treated a promotional mailing promoting a veritable orgy of screenings for cardiovascular disease. SSM has partnered with an organization called HealthFair, which will drive one of its buses to a Walgreens near Vik, where he can clamber on and get screened.
The pitch is that Vik could get a package of six screenings, available for a limited time for the promotional price of $179 (total “value” $2,300), with an additional Know-Your-Numbers lipid panel assessment for just $99. Combine both offers and get an additional $20 off, with a total price of just $258. The six-test package of screenings includes:
- Echocardiogram ultrasound
- Stroke/carotid artery ultrasound
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm ultrasound
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD) test
- Hardening of the arteries test (also called the Arterial Stiffness Index or ASI)
Let’s take a hard look at each of the recommended screenings. For the sake of consistency, we look first to the published recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) which is the closest thing we have to an independent, credible arbiter of data on preventive services. In cases where the USPSTF has not made a recommendation, we look to the literature.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm ultrasound: Rated “B” only for men aged 65 to 75 with a history of smoking. It’s a C for men in that age with no smoking history, “I” or inconclusive for women 65 to 75 who’ve smoked, and a D (more harmful than helpful) for women in this age range with no smoking history. Why does the promotional material contain no stratification by age, gender, or smoking status?
Stroke/carotid artery ultrasound: rated a D for all adults who are asymptomatic. Someone with symptoms doesn’t need a screening; they need a workup and therapy.
Echocardiogram ultrasound: the USPSTF doesn’t even have a recommendation on this, so we look to the literature. A large, long-term study from Norway, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013, concluded that echo has no prognostic value. This jibes with the recommendations of the American Society of Echocardiography, articulated at Choosing Wisely, that echo is overused even in people who are symptomatic and should be avoided in people who have no reason to get one.
Electrocardiography or EKG: USPSTF rates this a D for adults with no symptoms and of inconclusive value even for people in moderate or high risk categories.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) test: The USPSTF rates this screen as I or inconclusive. They do say, however, that the incidence of PAD in the general population is unknown. While this testing has value in people who are symptomatic, they were not coy about its value in people with no symptoms: “The USPSTF found no evidence that screening for and treatment of PAD in asymptomatic patients leads to clinically important benefits.”
Hardening of the arteries test (also called the Arterial Stiffness Index or ASI): The USPSTF has no recommendation on this. But, the American Heart Association, which typically doesn’t softsell cardiac goods and services, completely disses this test: “On the other hand, genotyping, other lipoprotein and apolipoprotein measurements, natriuretic peptides, hs-CRP for high- or low-risk adults, brachial/peripheral flow-mediated dilation, measurement of arterial stiffness, contrast computed tomography angiography and plaque imaging by magnetic resonance imaging are not recommended (Class III). The lack of support for these tests may change as more evidence is acquired. However, future recommendations will have to fully consider cost-effectiveness before reclassifying them.”
In sum then, we would like to know how and why SSM and HealthFair are selling their St. Louis audience a package of six screenings that, with only one exception, are recommended NOT to be done by the evidence-based medical community. Read that carefully. “Recommended NOT to be done” is different from — way worse than “Not recommended to be done.”
And yet this hospital seems to be unfamiliar with medical guidelines.
A cynic might say “No, they have an internet connection that reaches USPSTF and understand medical guidelines. They choose to ignore them, in order to create followup revenue for the (mostly false) positives that these tests will inevitably reveal. And the reason they are practically giving them away is that they not covered by insurance because the Affordable Care Act requires health plans to cover only screens that are A or B rated by the USPSTF. However, all the followups will be well-reimbursed.”
SSM is not alone in the screenings charade; in fact, in St. Louis, Vik is regularly treated to an onslaught of screening propaganda from Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University in St. Louis: currently making the claim that “where you get your mammogram matters.” Other than singing the virtues of their own radiologists and perpetuating the myth that early diagnosis is the same as a life saved, we see no evidence on the Siteman website that their strategy actually reduces mortality. Last fall, Siteman was running an ad on St. Louis radio station enticing women to come get a mammogram and register for a cruise vacation.
Our suggestion to generally healthy, symptom-free adults living near any one of these organizations? Use your $179 to buy a couple of really good pairs of running shoes instead. Then, when some medical care vendor starts yammering to you about the predictive and life-saving values of screenings, you can literally run for your life.
Don’t depart without reading our Smoking Gun entry on SSM at this link.