January 17, 2008 11:33AM

Sometimes Medicine Helps, Sometimes It Hurts

This week’s Health section in The Washington Post has one, two, three illuminating articles showing how aggressive medicine can either hurt or help:

  1. Often helpful, often unhelpful, sometimes harmful medicine: “Brenner and his colleagues estimate that CT scans may be responsible for perhaps 2 percent of all cancers in the United States. The ECRI Institute estimated the scans may be causing 6,000 extra cancers each year, half of them fatal … While there are scant hard data about how often CT scans are done needlessly, several experts estimated that perhaps one‐​third could be eliminated.”
  2. Outright harmful medicine: “One of the most horrifying medical treatments of the 20th century was carried out not clandestinely, but with the approval of the medical establishment, the media and the public. Known as the transorbital or “ice pick” lobotomy, the crude and destructive brain‐​scrambling operation performed on thousands of psychiatric patients between the 1930s and 1960s was touted as a cure for mental illness.”
  3. Unexpectedly helpful medicine: “Scans of my bones, pelvis and abdomen were all clear — suggesting the prostate cancer hadn’t metastasized. But the stomach scan caught a couple of inches of my right lung in the picture — and it wasn’t pretty. A suspicious nodule was growing in the lung’s lobe, apparently unrelated to my prostate cancer. A PET scan ‘lit up’ the nodule, confirming it was a live growth … My experience puts me in a select group of people lucky to have received an accidental lifesaving diagnosis.”