Overdiagnosis Of Diseases And Medical Conditions Is Far Too Common

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Morrow via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.

Overdiagnosis, according to Oxford’s Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is the detection of disease that would not have produced signs or symptoms before death. 

Awareness of overdiagnosis has come to light due to a rise in the prevalence of certain diseases, such as cancer, despite little to no change in mortality rates. This happens when abnormalities are detected — and sometimes treated — in people that might otherwise never have presented symptoms, not to mention faced mortal harm.

Medical definitions on mental health issues have also lead to overdiagnosis of conditions like ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression in patients that might not have otherwise required medical treatment.

Overdiagnosis is not only potentially harmful to over-treated patients’ health, but their finances; at it’s worst, it can be a waste of resources, time, and hospital expense.

Overdiagnosis of Cancers

While it’s great news that medical science has advanced enough to detect diseases in their earliest stages, the occurrence of overdiagnosis means that doctors should draw clearer lines between what is normal and what is abnormal, who needs treatment and who doesn’t.

Because of this, it may be necessary to expand disease definitions, and alter how diseases are detected and treated, according to the Washington post.

For example, due to early screening, 60 percent of prostate cancer cases are overdiagnosed, and 1.3 million people have been over-diagnosed for early-stage breast cancer in the last 30 years. The latter often choose treatment (sometimes by radiation or mastectomy) due to the patients’ anxiety over the diagnosis, and the doctors’ pressure to act on it.

Overdiagnosis of Mental Illnesses

Overdiagnosis also happens in regards to psychological issues such as ADHD and bipolar disorder, especially in children and young adults.

Where the rate of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was about 5-10 percent in the 1970s, current rates have been reported as high as 23 percent, Jann Gumbiner, PhD writes for Psychology Today.

It is Doctor Gumbiner’s opinion that children are being consistently overdiagnosed and medicated for relatively ordinary childhood behavior, such as impulsiveness, which is classified (perhaps wrongfully) as a mental disorder under current definitions.

Recorded cases of bipolar disorder also increased in the last decade by 40 times, the Huffington Post reports via the Star Tribune.

Dr. Bernard Carroll, scientific director of the Pacific Behavioral Research Foundation, has noted that many young people treated for this type of depression “have never had anything other than irritability,” yet are “exposed to anti-convulsants [and] anti-psychotic drugs, which have serious long-term side effects.”

The takeaway

  • As medicine advances, doctors and medical professionals must take care to determine who truly needs treatment and to what extent
  • Though overdiagnosis and over-treatment err on the side of caution, they can be harmful and costly
  • New approaches and definitions may help doctors and patients choose courses of action more appropriate to their existing issues

Originally published on November 2, 2014. 

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert