Blog | Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Don't look hard for thyroid cancer--you will probably find it


Gilbert Welch has written an excellent commentary on the fresh-out-of-the-printer recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) regarding screening for thyroid cancer. Dr. Welch, a professor at Dartmouth University, has spoken out about wasteful and harmful procedures done in the name of prevention. He is a compelling writer, has written several books aimed at people who are not doctors, and has captured the essence of the thyroid cancer screening controversy in this article, published in JAMA.

Briefly, he applauds the recommendations of the USPSTF, which state that there is no evidence that looking for thyroid cancer in people who have no concerning symptoms (symptoms such as a neck lump, difficulty swallowing or hoarseness) helps them. He looks at the population data on thyroid cancer, first evidence out of Finland that suggested that nearly everyone probably has a small thyroid cancer if you look hard enough, and evidence that discovering and treating these tumors does nothing to reduce the rate at which people die of thyroid cancer. Death from thyroid cancer has always been very rare, and thyroid cancers are pretty common.

He also discusses how the USPSTF can continue to develop recommendations which are based on evidence but often go against what is commonly done by physicians. The panel is made up of volunteers who are physicians in primary care and epidemiologists, medical professionals who study how disease occurs and can be controlled in populations. This limits conflicts of interest since none of these professionals stands to gain from promoting or discouraging given procedures.

Apparently in November of 2016 legislation was introduced to put specialists and representatives from industry on the USPSTF. It did not pass, and should not be allowed to pass if it is introduced again. Screening for thyroid cancer results in many people being diagnosed with thyroid cancer which would never harm them if left untreated, but will result in hefty medical costs which will go to endocrine specialists, surgeons, pharmaceutical manufacturers and radiation providers. It is vital that task force members not be connected to fields which would gain or lose based on their recommendations..

Those of you who have been following this blog may recall the saga of my very own thyroid nodule. Much like many of my fellow humans who have been overdiagnosed with thyroid cancer, my thyroid nodule was discovered by an overzealous doctor. Actually, me. I hadn't had a physical exam in a while and thought maybe I better check myself out to see if there was anything amiss. I discovered a small lump in the right side of my neck. Being skilled in ultrasound, I headed down the very same garden path trod by the ranks of the overdiagnosed and had a scan (by me) of the nodule. It had characteristics that were benign and ones that were suspicious. I chose to follow it along for a year or more, but was alarmed when I heard that even benign appearing thyroid nodules sometimes harbored thyroid cancer. I was lucky at this point, however, when my thyroid biopsy (which hurt a lot and was very expensive) did not show cancer.

With the present guidelines, I would have spared myself multiple repeated ultrasound scans (all free in my case, because I did them myself) and the fear that persisted over the time that I followed the nodule as well as thousands of dollars and a very sore neck. Had thyroid cancer been discovered, and data suggest that it is probably there somewhere, I would have also had surgery, radiation and regular followup for recurrence, putting me at risk for complications and costing many tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of work lost, anxiety, pain and inconvenience. The new recommendations of the USPSTF will likely draw criticism. Those recommendations appear to me to be well considered and right on target.

Do read Dr. Welch's commentary. He is an excellent writer. Also be aware of the great resource we still have in the USPSTF which can say true things that might be unpopular with other powerful interests.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.