Are women being over examined by an over cautious health nanny state? In an uncertain world, we want to believe in the certainty of medicine: that it is omniscient and operates in absolutes. In reality, this is far from the truth. The world of medicine reflects the world we live in; constantly in flux with multifarious contradictions.
Scientists relish this fact. However, for those on the outside, this can be bewildering. We are told one thing one minute, only for it to be ridiculed the next. With its definitions and protocols, medicine serves to give the illusion of stability when, in truth, doctors are all too often unsure.
The furore around breast screening perfectly illustrates this. It began when the Government’s cancer “tsar”, Prof Sir Mike Richards, announced that he is setting up an independent review of the NHS programme.
He has also ordered that patient leaflets, which explain the screening programme, be rewritten to take into account claims by some experts that the benefits have been exaggerated.
Understandably, this has prompted widespread confusion. The issue of breast cancer is always emotive. When I worked in breast surgery, I saw first hand the horrors of this disease on sufferers and their families, and it is vital that we do everything we can to treat and prevent it. But the debate over screening has been raging for some time within the medical community. I remember attending a lecture on this issue when I was at medical school more than 10 years ago.
The NHS screening programme was introduced by the Thatcher government following the 1987 Forrest Report, which recommended a national screening programme for breast cancer for women aged between 50 and 74. The report was based on the most up-to-date research.
But, since then, by comparing countries that have a screening programme with those that don’t, evidence has emerged suggesting that the steady fall in mortality in Western countries is not due to the screening programme, but to improved treatment and service provision.
If this is shown to be true – and it’s still a big if – then this would mean we are needlessly screening thousands of women. And there is an argument that many of the tumours detected by screening would not actually have developed into a life-threatening cancer.
For every screening test, whatever the disease, there is a margin of error. How good a test is can boil down to two things. The first is sensitivity, which measures how good the test is at giving a positive result in those who have the disease. The second is specificity, which refers to how many of those tested are disease-free and test negative.
Now, if you act on the results every time a test records a positive – in the case of breast cancer by doing invasive surgery or giving radiotherapy or chemotherapy – the sensitivity and specificity has to be very high (as near to 100 per cent as possible) to warrant a national screening programme. If it’s not sensitive enough, you’ll be giving women false reassurance when, in fact, tumours are being missed. Similarly, if it’s not specific enough, you’ll be needlessly treating people, with all the associated risks that treatment brings. It is this that is concerning some experts.
They argue that women are being over-diagnosed and over-treated because screening is not specific enough. It can pick up breast abnormalities that may look worrying when biopsied but are actually harmless. It’s a balancing act between saving lives and not causing harm by needless treatment. While doctors are used to adapting to changes in evidence, this is little consolation to women who worry about the disease.
It is perfectly sensible to have an independent review of the research, but I can’t help but think of the women who have had treatment,or are facing treatment, or those who are deciding if they should go for screening. The fact that the current debate waging in the medical establishment is part of the reflexive process that underpins science is of little comfort to them.
Let’s deal firmly with those who fail in patient care
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley should be congratulated – and it’s not often I say that – for his announcement last week that widespread spot checks on hospitals and care homes will be introduced in a drive to improve standards.
The checks will be undertaken by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). It comes after the Government reviewed the findings of the first wave of unannounced visits to care of the elderly wards in the summer. Over half the hospitals inspected had problems, particularly in relation to issues around patient dignity.
Spot checks are the way to tackle this and weed out bad practice and serious failings. But, they will only have any meaning if the CQC – often felt by those campaigning for improved standards as toothless – act on what they find. We don’t need endless reports and bureaucratic stalling. If it will work, the CQC will have to use its muscle. Those in charge of wards and hospitals found to be failing must be held accountable and dealt with firmly.