Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
A cardiologist recommended that the man immediately have a coronary angiogram, in which a catheter is threaded into an artery to the heart and injects a dye that then shows up on special x-rays that look for blockages. If the test found a blockage, the cardiologist advised, the executive should get a stent, a metal tube that slips into the artery and forces it open.
While he was waiting in the emergency department, the executive took out his phone and searched “treatment of coronary artery disease.” He immediately found information from medical journals that said medications, like aspirin and blood-pressure-lowering drugs, should be the first line of treatment. The man was an unusually self-possessed patient, so he asked the cardiologist about what he had found. The cardiologist was dismissive and told the man to “do more research.” Unsatisfied, the man declined to have the angiogram and consulted his primary-care doctor.
The primary-care physician suggested a different kind of angiogram, one that did not require a catheter but instead used multiple x-rays to image arteries. That test revealed an artery that was partially blocked by plaque, and though the man’s heart was pumping blood normally, the test was incapable of determining whether the blockage was dangerous. Still, his primary-care doctor, like the cardiologist at the emergency room, suggested that the executive have an angiogram with a catheter, likely followed by a procedure to implant a stent. The man set up an appointment with the cardiologist he was referred to for the catheterization, but when he tried to contact that doctor directly ahead of time, he was told the doctor wouldn’t be available prior to the procedure. And so the executive sought yet another opinion. That’s when he found Dr. David L. Brown, a professor in the cardiovascular division of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The executive told Brown that he’d felt pressured by the previous doctors and wanted more information. He was willing to try all manner of noninvasive treatments—from a strict diet to retiring from his stressful job—before having a stent implanted.
The executive had been very smart to seek more information, and now, by coming to Brown, he was very lucky, too. Brown is part of the RightCare Alliance, a collaboration between health-care professionals and community groups that seeks to counter a trend: increasing medical costs without increasing patient benefits. As Brown put it, RightCare is “bringing medicine back into balance, where everybody gets the treatment they need, and nobody gets the treatment they don’t need.” And the stent procedure was a classic example of the latter. In 2012, Brown had coauthored a paper that examined every randomized clinical trial that compared stent implantation with more conservative forms of treatment, and he found that stents for stable patients prevent zero heart attacks and extend the lives of patients a grand total of not at all. In general, Brown says, “nobody that’s not having a heart attack needs a stent.” (Brown added that stents may improve chest pain in some patients, albeit fleetingly.) Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of stable patients receive stents annually, and one in 50 will suffer a serious complication or die as a result of the implantation procedure.
Brown explained to the executive that his blockage was one part of a broader, more diffuse condition that would be unaffected by opening a single pipe. The cardiovascular system, it turns out, is more complicated than a kitchen sink. The executive started medication and improved his diet. Three months later, his cholesterol had improved markedly, he had lost 15 pounds, and the chest pain never returned.
Now, listen to the story with the sad ending: Not long after helping the executive, Brown and his colleagues were asked to consult on the case of a 51-year-old man from a tiny Missouri town. This man had successfully recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but radiation and six cycles of chemotherapy had left him with progressive scarring creeping over his lungs. He was suffocating inside his own body. The man was transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital, where Brown works, for a life-saving lung transplant. But when the man arrived in St. Louis, the lung-transplant team could not operate on him.[...]
Meanwhile, the man’s lung tissue continued to harden and scar, like molten lava that cools and hardens into gray stone. Until one day, he couldn’t suck in another breath. The man had survived advanced-stage lymphoma only to die in the hospital, waiting until he could go off needed medication for an unneeded stent.
What the patients in both stories had in common was that neither needed a stent. By dint of an inquiring mind and a smartphone, one escaped with his life intact. The greater concern is: How can a procedure so contraindicated by research be so common?
When you visit a doctor, you probably assume the treatment you receive is backed by evidence from medical research. Surely, the drug you’re prescribed or the surgery you’ll undergo wouldn’t be so common if it didn’t work, right?
For all the truly wondrous developments of modern medicine—imaging technologies that enable precision surgery, routine organ transplants, care that transforms premature infants into perfectly healthy kids, and remarkable chemotherapy treatments, to name a few—it is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous. Sometimes doctors simply haven’t kept up with the science. Other times doctors know the state of play perfectly well but continue to deliver these treatments because it’s profitable—or even because they’re popular and patients demand them. Some procedures are implemented based on studies that did not prove whether they really worked in the first place. Others were initially supported by evidence but then were contradicted by better evidence, and yet these procedures have remained the standards of care for years, or decades.
Even if a drug you take was studied in thousands of people and shown truly to save lives, chances are it won’t do that for you. The good news is, it probably won’t harm you, either. Some of the most widely prescribed medications do little of anything meaningful, good or bad, for most people who take them. [...]
[...] consider the $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act, which recently passed Congress to widespread acclaim. Who can argue with a law created in part to bolster cancer research? Among others, the heads of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association. They argue against the new law because it will take $3.5 billion away from public-health efforts in order to fund research on new medical technology and drugs, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot.” The new law takes money from programs—like vaccination and smoking-cessation efforts—that are known to prevent disease and moves it to work that might, eventually, treat disease. The bill will also allow the FDA to approve new uses for drugs based on observational studies or even “summary-level reviews” of data submitted by pharmaceutical companies. Prasad has been a particularly trenchant and public critic, tweeting that “the only people who don’t like the bill are people who study drug approval, safety, and who aren’t paid by Pharma.”
Perhaps that’s social-media hyperbole. Medical research is, by nature, an incremental quest for knowledge; initially exploring avenues that quickly become dead ends are a feature, not a bug, in the process. Hopefully the new law will in fact help speed into existence cures that are effective and long-lived. But one lesson of modern medicine should by now be clear: Ineffective cures can be long-lived, too.