September 19, 2015
It may seem logical that getting screened for health issues frequently will boost your chance of catching long-term illnesses—like cancer and the potential for heart disease—early. While that may be true, doctors say that tracking your health data has the potential to do more harm than good. How? Read on to learn more about this debate.
The Idea Behind Tracking Your Data
Some people suggest having your bloodwork done quarterly if you can afford it. The idea is that this will help establish a baseline for your health so that if something abnormal arises, it’s easy to spot. That way, you can compare your results to your own history rather than to a comparable demographic. This would also help you spot markers of long-term illness early since most people have their bloodwork and screenings done only after they’ve started experiencing symptoms.
Sounds logical, right? Other experts argue that tracking your health data this closely can be dangerous for patients.
The Pitfalls of Tracking Your Data
Why is this such a dangerous practice? The biggest argument on this side of the debate is that more testing leads to more false positives and diagnoses, often for conditions that aren’t harmful to your health. This, in turn, increases treatment practices, which comes with side effects that could cause illness.
In fact, The BMJ—British Medical Journal—published a study in 2012 that showed that general health checks didn’t have an effect on morbidity or mortality. They also didn’t reduce cardiovascular or cancer causes. What did happen was that more diagnoses were reported, although the study did not look at the potential harmful outcomes of this increase in diagnoses.
In addition, the Society of General Internal Medicine reports that screening in adults without symptoms does not reduce morbidity, mortality, or hospitalization, but it does create a potential harm from unnecessary testing.
Dr. H. Gilbert Welch takes an interesting approach to this topic in an interview at KNPR.org. He points out that there are so many variables and data points to consider that something will always come up as “abnormal” even when it’s not harmful. He also says that diagnoses are not black and white. Instead, there are “1,000 shades of grey in between.” With these false abnormalities comes “great pressure to react to those abnormalities.”
How Can You Avoid These Pitfalls?
Health experts are not suggesting that you shouldn’t run tests at all. The problem comes in when you’re testing too frequently, such as getting blood work done every quarter. Slow down on your screenings, and you can still gather relevant health data every few years.
The National Library of Medicine outlines recommendations for how often you should run tests based on your age and gender. For instance, they recommend that women ages 18-39 have a physical exam performed twice in their 20s and 30s and have a pap smear done every three years. These types of recommendations are much more reasonable than being screened multiple times per year.
Realistically, however, one of the best things to do is to not worry so much! As Dr. H. Gilbert Welch says, “Health is about more than a bunch of physical measurements. It’s about a state of mind, and we have to be careful not to undermine that state of mind. Ironically, part of health is not being too focused on it.”
Focus instead on eating healthy, building strong relationships, spending time outside, and surrounding yourself with loved ones and your health will be better off than tracking it too closely.
How will this information impact your health screening practices and your focus on your data?
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