Preventive Medicine: on being a "bad patient" (Readers beware: this is the rant of a curmudgeon. Take with at least one grain of salt.)
One way in which I do not play the part of the patient well regards preventive medicine. I am getting to an age at which various things are recommended in order to reduce my risk of developing some dread disease. When it comes to these recommendations, I find that I have become quite the picky consumer. I would dearly love not to get a preventable disease, but after more than 2 decades of practicing primary care medicine, I have seen too many undesirable consequences of perfectly benign sounding medical tests.
Breast Cancer Screening:
I don't avail myself of mammograms. I did once, and that was fine. Starting age 50 I was supposed to get mammogams every other year, according to the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Maybe I'll get another one sometime if the data gets better. A Canadian study showed no significant effect of regular mammography on breast cancer mortality in average risk patients, though women who get regular screening do get more treatment for breast cancers, including mastectomies and radiation therapy.
Colon Cancer Screening:
I haven't had a colonoscopy. In this test, a fiberoptic scope would be introduced into my lower intestine by way of the rectum and the whole colon would be visualized with the expectation of finding and removing polyps before they become cancers, or seeing cancers before they become incurable. USPSTF said I should have started those at age 50, but the data for women without suggestive family histories of colon cancer is not convincing and the potential for something to go wrong definitely exists. An inadequately sterilized colonoscope could introduce some unfriendly bacterium into my gut. I think I like my flora as it is, thank you. The procedure to clean out my gut, drinking a half gallon of polyethylene glycol solution until my bowels run clear, which is required before the procedure, may be fine, but I'm not entirely sure that a day of rapid intestinal transit is good for me. Intravenous sedation, which is usually given in order to make this procedure tolerable, has a small risk of killing me and will make me goofy, though possibly in a pleasant way. I will watch for updates, but I'm thinking I may have this procedure when I'm 60. Maybe. I prefer to reduce my risk of colon cancer by maintaining a healthy weight and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Pap smears. The recommendations have changed and the schedule is less onerous, but since I had regular yearly pap smears until several years after becoming monogamous, my chance of having a new human papillomavirus infection is vanishingly small, and it is that infection that leads to cervical cancer, which is the only cancer that a pap smear reliably detects. I think I may be done with pap smears.
Blood pressure screening is another story. Detection of hypertension and treatment of high blood pressure saves lives, prevents strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure. I can do it myself, and if my blood pressure is persistently high, I will actually see a doctor and start medications. Let that not happen, because I will not submit gracefully to someone else's opinion on which medication I should take. Unless, of course, they are right. Often I see patients started on some medication which just came out and is available in the doctors free sample cabinet. That one I don't want. It will be expensive to refill and we will know very little about how well it works in the long run. Don't I sound annoying?
Bone density testing. There are machines that will shoot photons at my bones and tell me if I am developing osteoporosis. I should get this done at age 65. Mostly I should avoid breaking bones, though, since that is the real problem. It matters not a bit if my bones are as fragile as dry corn stalks so long as they never break. Staying strong and agile is the best way to avoid falls and fractures. If I find out that my bones are thinning, the main option for bone strenthening are the bisphosphonates, such as alendronate (Fosamax). These are medications which, if they don't get caught in the esophagus and cause a terrible ulcer, which they are known to do, and they don't get entirely eliminated, unabsorbed, due to having taken food with them to avoid getting the esophageal ulcer, will enter my bones to reduce the natural breakdown of bone by my osteoclasts, thus messing up the delicate balance of osteoblasts and osteoclasts that creates normal bone architecture. This will reduce my risk of breaking a hip or vertebra if I fall, but will put me at risk for a rare but horrific breakdown of bone in the jaw called osteonecrosis. So I will work hard on my strength and balance, eat a good diet and encourage the effects of gravity on my bones via weight bearing exercise. Luckily I am not yet 65, so I can decide on this test later. I'm leaning toward not.
What about vaccinations? Yes, with no hesitation. Yearly flu shots, though I recognize my potential benefit from these is low, pneumonia shots when the time comes, tetanus and acellular pertussis, yes, and appropriate travel vaccinations with the possible exception of yellow fever. (There is a longer discussion of that here.)
How about obsessing about my cholesterol? The present recommendations about cholesterol lowering are to treat patients with a 10 year risk of cardiovascular events of 7.5% or higher. The calculator for this has recently been shown to overestimate this risk, but I have always been in the vanishingly unlikely range, which means that I need not know my numbers. I have checked them occasionally and they are not pristine, but it is not clear to me what intervention would be most likely to lower my already low risk of cardiovascular disease. Certainly there is no indication for medications. I might become primarily vegetarian and eat fish when I can get it, embracing the Mediterranean diet. There is no good data to tell me which fats I should eat, but it seems wise to be moderate and avoid trans-fats which don't naturally occur in the foods I love anyway.
How about exercise? Exercise seems to play an important part in preventing all kinds of things I don't want, from diabetes to dementia. It will control my weight, which will help me avoid hypertension and cancer. It will improve my balance so I will avoid falling and breaking bones. I will be more likely to be nimble enough to jump out of the way of an oncoming bus or bicycle. Yes to exercise. Long walks in the woods, cross country skiing, visits to the gym, bicycling, swimming, canoeing.
How about a regular physical exam? Not sure. So far it's been no for me, but yes for my patients. A physical exam is no longer really recommended, though there are many pieces of the physical exam that are part of what we recommend to patients as prevention. I think a physical exam is actually a good idea, but more as a prolonged discussion of preventive testing recommendations and to develop shared goals. Examining the body is not a bad idea, either. As we age, our bodies do weird things. A toe will point in the wrong direction, there will be a lump or a pain or a vague dysfunction, none of them severe enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, but each one deserving attention and maybe explanation. In total, these little irritations may paint a picture of a whole organism which needs some kind of intervention in order to be as healthy and vital as possible. If this kind of an evaluation and discussion is a physical, then yes, definitely, and I might even want one.
So am I actually a bad patient? Since I am not a patient, it is still a moot point. They say doctors make terrible patients. We will just have to see, when the time comes.