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Failure to Diagnose is Bad; What's the Risk of Overdiagnoses?

All too often we hear stories about the horrors of doctors failing to diagnose a disease resulting in the death of a patient. This can be particularly devastating in cases where cancer is the culprit, but doesn’t get caught in time.

Such instances, if negligence can be shown, may represent situations in which a medical malpractice claim may be justifiable. An experienced attorney can help make such a call.

But now a new study raises the question whether doctors haven’t started overdiagnosing and overtreating cases of thyroid, possibly to the detriment of patients.

The study is the work of two Dartmouth doctors. They looked at government information collected between 1975 and 2009. What they discovered is that during that time span, the number of diagnosed cases of thyroid cancer rose from 5 cases per 100,000 to 14 per 100,000. Most of the cases involved the least deadly form of thyroid cancer. Those went from 3 cases per 100,000 in 1975 to more than 12 cases per 100,000 in 2009.

The doctors observed that in 85 percent of all cases, the treatment followed involved the removal of the entire affected gland and the taking of hormone therapy for the rest of the patient’s life.

What appears to leave the authors disconcerted is whether such treatment is way more than is necessary. They say less aggressive surgery is the recommended standard of care in most cases and probably would have been sufficient. They say the most common thyroid cancer grows so slowly it isn’t likely to cause a patient’s death.

Experts say the increase in thyroid cancer diagnoses is due to better detection methods. But they say they don’t know which ones could become aggressive, which may explain why overtreatment occurs.

What the study’s authors conclude is that doctors should do a better job of communicating with patients about the thyroid cancers so that more informed decisions can be made about what kind of treatment approach to take in any given case.

Source: The Associated Press, “Thyroid cancer cases soar; is it overdiagnosed?,” Lindsey Tanner, Feb. 20, 2014