Dr Iona Heath is one of the foremost voices of the movement that confronts overdiagnosis and medicalization. She is in Australia to deliver a Sydney Ideas talk, "Too Much Medicine: Exploiting Fear for the Pursuit of Profit," on August 5th.
Testament to her ability to draw a crowd as she speaks frankly, humanly, and persuasively about this controversial subject, it has been moved to a larger venue!
While the Sydney Ideas talk may not be made available online, she has also given an interview with ABC Radio Conversations in Australia.
In the discussion, she frames the problem of 'too much medicine' and helps to define the difference between illness and disease, explaining how we make well people into patients.
With reference to A Fortunate Man and drawing on experience and connection with patients from her own 30 years in practice, she speaks about the role of the general practitioner and our inability to address the social determinates of health - the real underlying risk factors for poor health.
Challenge by an interviewer who is not familiar with the science behind risks and outcomes of screening mammography for breast cancer, Iona emphasizes that the key message is not that a test or treatment is wrong for everyone, but that patients must be given informed choice. They must be fully informed of the potential risk and benefits of any intervention, and think about how it may impact them personally.
When the interviewer sticks to the common rhetoric 'prevention is better than cure' and insists that listeners should not run out and cancel their mammogram, Iona answers this bravely and personally. She shares that she, being in a low risk category, has decided that the harms of a mammogram outweigh the benefit for her. The paper she wrote in the BMJ in 2009, It is not wrong to say no, summarizes the arguments fully.
Iona does not state this explicitly, and I'm not sure it is fair to suggest it is implied, but our professional oath guides us such that: where there is risk but no benefit, the medical expert has a duty not to harm and so will encourage avoidance of the unnecessary test or treatment.
I am hopeful the lecture hall tonight is bursting at the seams with contemplative fence-sitters who may be persuaded by her words. Every event like this brings us closer to transforming the culture of care and being able to improve the lives of our patients.