Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Yankee Doodling

How to decrease overtreatment in cancer

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 14 August 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5071
  1. Douglas Kamerow, chief scientist, RTI International, and associate editor, BMJ
  1. dkamerow{at}

Screen more selectively, do different research, and change our vocabulary

In the US and in other “overdeveloped” nations, we excel at finding and treating medical problems, at least in some members of our populations. Among the results of these capabilities are overdiagnosis and overtreatment—finding diseases that don’t need to be treated and providing treatments that lead to more harm than good. I first understood this to be a generalized problem after reading Shannon Brownlee’s Overtreated in 2007,1 but the BMJ had published a theme issue on “Too Much Medicine” in 2002.2 The BMJ and others are now sponsoring a conference on this topic3 and have launched a campaign “to highlight the threat to human health posed by overdiagnosis and the waste of resources on unnecessary care.”4

As with threats to patient safety, we need to move beyond the simple recognition and documentation of overtreatment to find ways to prevent it. Cancer screening tests may provide a good opportunity. A group of experts convened by the US National Cancer Institute …

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