PSA Testing: An About-Face

If you thought U.S. doctors would never accept evidence-based medicine, consider this: Just last week, in a stunning about-face, the American Urological Association(AUA) announced that it no longer recommends routine annual PSA testing for men under 55.   

The organization added that “men ages 55 to 69 who are considering the PSA test” for prostate cancer “should consult their doctors about the test’s benefits and risks.”

The potential “benefit of preventing prostate cancer mortality in 1 man for every 1,000 men screened over a decade” should be weighed  “against the known potential harms associated with screening and treatment [which include side effects such as incontinence and impotence }  For this reason, “ shared decision-making is recommended for men age 55 to 69 years that are considering PSA screening,”  The AUA stressed that “ patients’ values and preferences” should direct a final decision.

.In addition,  the AUA announced that “to reduce the harms of screening, a routine screening interval of two years or more may be preferred over annual screening in those men who have participated in shared decision-making and decided on screening.

I wrote about “shared decison-making” and how it could help patients considering a PSA test make an informed choice  here on HealthBeat back in 2007.(Readers interested in why this protocol is so important to patient-centered medicine may be interested in this story that I wrote for Dartmouth Medicine: “Making Choice An Option.” )  Congratuations to the AUA for having the courage to take this giant step forward into the future of medicine.

“The new guideline is significantly different than previous guidance,” the organization acknowledged, noting that it “was developed using evidence from a systematic literature review rather than consensus opinion.” In other words, urologists didn’t take a vote; they looked at the Science.

Authors of the new guidelines have “learned very quickly that there really was no high-level evidence supporting the use of screening with PSA,” said urologist H. Ballentine Carter, who chaired the panel that wrote the new guidelines.”                         

When I last wrote about PSA testing, in July of 2012, such a radical shift in the AUAs positions would have been unthinkable.  At the time, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) had given PSA testing a grade of “D”—suggesting that benefits did not outweigh risks. 

 In response, urologists joined forces with Republicans to threaten the autonomy of the USPSTF by supporting  a House bill (H.R. 5998)  that proposed to mandate “greater role for specialists and advocacy groups” in developing guidelines”  while ”eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit.”      

What a difference a year makes.

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Diversity in the Physician Workforce is Essential; What Will Happen If the Supreme Court Overturns Affirmative Action?

In October, the Supreme Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. You may have read about the case: the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, applied for undergraduate admission to the University of Texas at Austin but was turned down. If she had graduated in the top 10% of her high school class, she would automatically have been admitted—but she did not.

When admitting students, the University of Texas first accepts all in-state students who place in the top 10%. This policy is race-neutral and fills about 80% of all spaces. The remaining seats are filled according to an evaluation process which considers six factors. Race is one of them.

Fisher is white and she claims that the explicit use of race as a factor in admission to the university violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Within the next few months, the Supreme Court will announce its decision

            What the Case Means for Medical Schools—and Patients

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial warning that the decision will “chart the future of affirmative action in American higher education . . . including admission of students to our nation’s medical schools.”

The editorial’s authors underline the need for a physician workforce that is ethnically and racially diverse:

“To provide good care, physicians must understand the communities and cultures in which they work. An important way to ensure that physicians understand the lives of their patients and to reduce health disparities is to promote diversity.”

I agree, and would add a second argument: if Fisher wins, the Court’s decision will leave millions of Americans without the medical care they desperately need because they live in a place where few physicians want to practice.

In this two-part post, I will be asking four questions:

1) How do we attract more physicians to underserved communities?  Could we entice them with higher salaries?  (Probably not.  A doctor who doesn’t want to raise his kids in rural Alabama won’t set up shop there even if you double his income.)

2) Should we encourage medical schools to practice class-based rather than race-based affirmative action?  This is, at best, a partial solution. A large percentage of low-income Americans are white. If they were admitted to medical school, those who grew up in rural areas might well decide to practice in similar communities where physicians are needed.. But this would not solve a larger problem—the shortage of  Latino, African-American and Native-American primary care doctors available to work both in inner cities and in the many rural areas where minorities are rapidly becoming the majority.

Multiple studies show that outcomes, communication, and compliance improve when a patient is able to see a physician from his own racial or ethnic group. This is not to say that committed white physicians cannot overcome cultural barriers and build strong patient relationships in these communities. But  many fewer choose to work, and raise their families, in remote rural areas that are primarily Latino, Native American, Mexican-American, or African American.

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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Urologists Threaten the Autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Over at HealthNewsReview.org  Gary Schwitzer has published a disturbing piece that looks at American Urological Association support for a bll that would make “significant changes to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.”

The guest post is written by Dr.Richard Hoffman, who is both one of HealthNewsReivew’s reviewers, and an editor at the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation a group that promotes “shared decision making.”   The Foundation, which was co-founded by Dr.Jack Wennber, the father of the Dartmouth Reserach,uses medical evidence to produce outstanding videos, pamphlets and web-based programs that help patients understand the potential risks and benefits of  elective surgeries and tests..  (I have written about “shared decision making” in past posts ). 

Below, an excerpt from Hoffman’s piece:

“Last week, the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, legislation (H.R. 5998) was introduced that threatens the autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“The legislation proposes to mandate a more transparent process for guideline development, a greater role for specialists and advocacy groups, and eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit The legislation, which comes on the heels of the Task Force’s controversial D rating against prostate cancer screening, is strongly supported by several prominent urological associations. 

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