I am not a hypochondriac as far as I know, but I could become one. And if I do, the companies that keep sending me invitations to sign up for an assortment of health screenings (package deal for a reasonable fee, they say) will have to bear most of the blame for it.
The pictures on the brochures usually sport smiling people of a certain age, a sly reminder to former spring chickens to take particular note. My heart may be weak; my bones may be thinning out; my blood pressure may be sky high and so may be my blood sugar and cholesterol levels. I may be dying slowly, silently. Or I just may keel over one lovely day.
The brochures are not that blunt, of course, but it is hard to miss the gist: I may be walking dead and not even know it. But the screenings may alert me early to problem conditions.
The logic flows from there: Assuming you missed the part about an ounce of prevention being better than a cure, the next best thing is early detection. Early detection leads to early intervention; and early intervention could be the difference between a miserable existence with debilitating disease (and an untimely demise) or a reasonably healthy life, the risky conditions under control.
The logic being what it is, it takes some courage to pitch invitations to screenings without pausing a minute to wonder. What dread conditions lurk beneath a healthy-looking exterior? Do I dare skip the Women’s Wellness Panel? Do I pass on the osteoporosis screening for a carotid artery or a cancer screening this year? After all, a lot can happen in a year.
With every year that passes, there seems to be an increase in the volume of mailings and advertisements presenting all manner of scenarios guaranteed to disturb your peace of mind. Have you had your bones checked recently? Are your arteries clear? Do you get confused sometimes finding your way home? How many bathroom trips do you make a night? What do you plan to do about your eyes or teeth or whatever? — because, you know, Medicare does not cover everything. …
Sometimes it seems we at the receiving end of health “information” are nothing more than the sum of potential ailments.
I assume health-service marketing will go into overdrive in the next few years if the health exchanges and Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act do succeed in ensuring access to care for an additional 30 million Americans.
Data from the expansion of Medicaid in Oregon indicate that when people have access, they use health services more. They visit doctors and hospitals more often, use more prescription drugs and are more likely to use preventive care. I presume the usage patterns will be similar for the millions of new consumers who will gain coverage through the exchanges. If that holds true, I imagine that the market and the pressure for people to undergo more health screenings also will grow accordingly.
That will be good news — if instead of carpet-bombing the population with ads, marketers of health services are smart about which screenings they push and to whom.
It is easy enough to sell health screenings as a critical part of preventive care. If you are aware early of what is happening in your body — say, a genetic predisposition to heart disease — it is possible to make dietary and lifestyle adjustments to prevent the condition from developing into full-blown disease. The arc of early detection to treatment to control or cure makes eminent good sense. Many a patient has credited a screening for revealing a cancer or a blockage in time for intervention to save a life or improve its quality.
But more and more, the caution from medical research panels such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which makes recommendations to primary-care doctors, is that screenings are not all equally beneficial. The heavy promotion of health screenings often minimizes associated risks or fails to acknowledge evidence of the limited value of some widely accepted screenings. Thus emotional and physical harm could result from false positives (or negatives) and follow-up interventions that may expose patients to infections and heaven knows what errors.
Increasingly, the responsibility is on us as consumers to find out which screenings are appropriate for us as individuals. I wouldn’t trust a mass mailing to tell me that.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com