I was surprised during a recent trip back to South Florida how many opportunities were available for “routine health screenings.” Screening tests that identify risk factors or detect undiagnosed conditions enable doctors to intervene early with treatment or recommended lifestyle changes.
On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised because South Florida is — after all — one of the leading retirement locations in the United States. Besides, nothing is ever “free” and these “routine health screenings” are really just the hook to get you to buy into whatever the Healthcare provider at the moment is peddling.
No doubt about it, in shopping malls, churches, public schools and hospitals around the country, free or low-cost health screening fairs are becoming a popular means of promoting healthy living and raising awareness of conditions like heart disease, diabetes and colon, breast and lung cancers. For the thousands of people who attend them each year, the events are an inexpensive way to monitor their health.
But — (there’s always a “but”) — according to the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) to some health care experts, frequent routine screenings-from the simple tests like those for cholesterol and blood sugar levels done at health fairs and screenings to mammograms and colonoscopies performed in hospitals or doctors’ offices-are sometimes unnecessary and even harmful. For example — a false positive on a routine urinalysis, for example, could lead to more tests, including a kidney biopsy.
I’ll have to admit: it is tempting. The lure of something free coupled with health information that normally you’d be paying for.
According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (www.dphp.osophs.dhhs.gov) –an independent panel of experts set up by Congress to make recommendations for preventive tests and screenings — the task force doesn’t favor annual physical exams across the board because it says there’s not enough evidence to show a benefit. The group does recommend targeted screenings based on an individual’s age, gender, underlying health condition or family history.
Interestingly enough, a study published in the American Journal of PreventiveMedicine (www.sciencedirect.com) in June, found that unnecessary medical tests cost the U.S. health system as much as $184 million a year. The study examined the costs incurred when results from urinalyses, electrocardiograms (EKGs) and chest X-rays mistakenly showed evidence of a health problem.
Do the math: the Journal points out that if — for example — 20 percent of EKGs given to asymptomatic patients in a routine exam are false, the follow-up tests will cost about $683 million. And that doesn’t account for the stress a patient feels, the time off from work they have to take and the possible complications that result from the follow-up test.
Still, Americans are attracted to free or low-cost screening events. And in all fairness to the argument presented, routine health screenings can be used for good. An article in the AARP (www.aarp.org) recounts that in early January 2007, nearly 1,500 people in three cities took advantage of screenings for heart disease at a traveling clinic sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov) Sixty-five percent were found to be at risk for heart problems.
Meanwhile in Colorado – the AARP article points out further — an estimated 100,000 people typically attend the annual health screening fairs sponsored by 9Health Fair (www.9healthfair.org) , a nonprofit, statewide organization. Of those, some 10,000 residents find they have health concerns and are urged to follow up with their doctors for further diagnosis or treatment.
So despite the misgivings of some critics, most doctors agree that certain screenings make sense for most adults at certain ages.
While vision checks are recommended every year or two for those 65 and older, people with glaucoma in their family history may want to start screening at 45. And hearing — which tends to worsen after age 50 — should be checked every 10 years, but more often by those who find they are turning up the TV or radio so loud that others complain, or are straining to hear normal conversation.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) also recommends that adults up to age 64 receive HIV testing in a health clinic or doctor’s office. Though risk of infection is low, older adults are the most likely of all age groups to be infected with the virus and not know it.
Meanwhile back on first — routine screening for most people age 50 and older may be less important than doing things they can control, such as watching their weight, exercising and not smoking.
More sensible advice than that you can’t get no matter what the price.