What’s the Value of an Annual “Checkup”?

As the Medical Director of the Kansas Business Group on Health I’m sometimes asked to weigh in on hot topics that might affect employers or employees. This is a reprint of a blog post from KBGH:

Are annual checkups all they’re cracked up to be?

Remember Cigna’s “Doctors of America” ads?

“We are the TV Doctors of America,” says McDreamy.

“And we’re partnering with Cigna to help save lives,” says Dr. John Carter.

“By getting you to a real doctor for a checkup,” chimes in Cuddy.

But to put our “Devil’s Advocates of America” hats on: what if this annual checkup business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

It is reasonable to hold any potential medical test or treatment to one of three standards:

  1. It makes the patient feel better. This includes hundreds of treatments, like using medications and physical therapy for pain, prescribing inhalers for asthma, giving antidepressants and therapy for depression, and replacing knees, for starters. It could even apply to things like bone mineral density screening, sometimes referred to as “DXA,” which linked with osteoporosis treatment may make no difference in the risk of death, but clearly prevents hip, wrist, and spine fractures.

  2. If it does not make the patient feel better, the test or treatment should make the patient live longer. This applies to everyday things like checking and treating high blood pressure and high cholesterol (neither one of which make most patients feel any better or worse today) to surgery and chemotherapy for cancers (most of which make patients feel much, much worse at least in the short-term, but prolong many lives).

  3. Finally, if a treatment makes no difference in how the patient feels and makes no difference in how long the patient lives, it should at the very least save money. The best example of this may be diabetes screening. As far as we can tell, screening for diabetes does not prolong life, at least not in the two or three trials that have specifically addressed the question. But diabetes screening linked to preventive measures like the Diabetes Prevention Program clearly saves money [disclaimer: the KBGH is closely linked to Health ICT through the Medical Society of Sedgwick County, which receives CDC funding to promote things like blood pressure control, cholesterol management, and diabetes prevention].

Many of the tests and treatments medicine offers do not live up to that rubric. This may be why the Cochrane Review, which many consider the highest level of evidence in medicine, published a review in 2018 stating that “Systematic offers of health checks are unlikely to be beneficial and may lead to unnecessary tests and treatments.” So when the TV Doctors of America say you need an annual checkup, what they surely mean is not that you need an old-fashioned sit-down with your doctor where, at the end of the visit, she gives you a “clean bill of health.” No. What I hope they mean is that you need to have access to a primary care provider. Investigators in 2019 found that every 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people was associated with a 51-day increase in life expectancy, which doesn’t sound like much, but is pretty big by medical standards. Some estimate that a doctor practicing at the top of his license adds about 4.5 net years to the average patient’s life. Not too shabby.

“Systematic offers of health checks are unlikely to be beneficial and may lead to unnecessary tests and treatments.”

What actually improves or extends someone’s life?

What the TV Doctors of America really mean is that you should have certain preventive services like immunizations and periodic screenings for health conditions that, if left untreated, can profoundly shorten your life. Most of these aren’t sexy. Probably the most effective preventive medical intervention, for example, is a simple periodic blood pressure check with medications if your blood pressure is too high. Sexier things like cancer screenings tend to have a “disease-specific” benefit, meaning they prevent you from dying of colon, prostate, cervical, breast, or lung cancers specifically, but they may not make people live longer as a whole.

If there is doubt in your company about what services you should be providing, a good place to start is with the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), a rotating group of doctors that follows very specific rules to evaluate the risks and benefits of specific screening. Their opinion holds a lot of weight because any test given a “B” or better rating is mandated to be covered by your insurance. Examples of “A” rated services are things like tobacco use counseling and interventions, blood pressure screening in adults, and screening for cervical and colon cancers, which are all strategies that easily conform to our rubric. Cholesterol testing in people without diabetes or heart disease gets a “B.” Screening for prostate cancer in men aged 55-69 with a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test is a good example of a “C” rated service, since it has no overall mortality benefit and its disease-specific mortality benefit is largely offset by the harms that screening can cause (prostate biopsies and surgeries can cause bladder leakage and erectile dysfunction, among other things). PSA screening for prostate cancer in men aged 70 or older gets a “D” rating because it appears, in the hive mind of the USPSTF, to cause more harm than it prevents; that is, it violates rules #2 and 3.

What does this mean for employers?

How do you apply this to your workforce? Start by being an informed shopper for any workplace wellness services being offered to your company. Whenever a wellness provider tries to charge you a lot of money for offering annual “wellness checks” or “health risk assessments,” check their recommendations against the opinion of the USPSTF (or have us at KBGH check them for you). If the amount of testing they’re charging far exceeds what the experts recommend, ask them why.

Second, work on the health literacy of your employees (we can help with this). It’s hard as a patient to turn down testing or treatment your doctor offers if you don’t have the background to know what works and what doesn’t. I’m a doctor myself, and even I’ve felt vulnerable being squeezed through the gears of the medical-industrial complex.

Links for Tuesday, November 21, 2017: more on the new HTN guideline, Gymnastics coaches throwing robot shade, the last iron lungs, Germany bans smartwatches, and Raymond Chandler hated US healthcare

Thoughtful post on the new HTN guideline by Dr. Allen Brett

Representative quote: "Consider, for example, a healthy white 65-year-old male nonsmoker with a BP of 130/80 mm Hg, total cholesterol level of 160 mg/dL, HDL cholesterol of 60 mg/dL, LDL cholesterol of 80 mg/dL, and fasting blood glucose of 80 mg/dL — all favorable numbers. The calculator estimates his 10-year CV risk to be 10.1%, making him eligible for BP-lowering medication under the new guideline. To my knowledge, no compelling evidence exists to support drug therapy for this person."

A gymnastics coach says the Boston Dynamics robot flip was a 3.5/5.0

'In a back salto, says Mazloum, “you want to be able to go as high as you can, and you want to be able to land as close to where you take off as possible.” To do that, the gymnast has to squat, throw her arms up by her ears so her body is a straight line (in gymnast-speak, opening the shoulder angle and the hip), then contract into a “closed” position again. By these standards, Atlas’ trick is “not the cleanest flip,” explains Mazloum.

Here’s Mazloum’s critique: Atlas didn’t quite get to that open position, “so it didn’t really get the full vertical that we look for. That’s why it went backwards a little bit.”'

The last of the iron lungs

Get your kids vaccinated for polio, folks.

Germany has banned smartwatches for kids

If I understand this correctly, it is not because smartwatches cause kids to be distracted monsters (although I don't doubt that that statement is at least a little bit true). The decision stems from the capability of bad guys to hack in and monitor the location of little Dick and Jane:

You have to wonder who thought attaching a low-cost, internet-enabled microphone and a GPS tracker to a kid would be a good idea in the first place. Almost none of the companies offering these “toys” implement reasonable security standards, nor do they typically promise that the data they collect—from your children—won’t be used be used for marketing purposes. If there ever was a time to actually sit down and read the terms and conditions, this was it.
Get your shit together, parents.

Asking parents to destroy them might be a bit of an overreaction, though.

Raymond Chandler paints a dark picture of American healthcare in a newly-discovered story

The title, "It’s All Right – He Only Died," sounds like the title of a video residencies would show interns to convince them that quality improvement and patient safety are part of their job.

The doctor who turned away the patient, Chandler writes, had “disgrace[d] himself as a person, as a healer, as a saviour of life, as a man required by his profession never to turn aside from anyone his long-acquired skill might help or save”.


Links for Tuesday, November 7, 2017: hacking the genome, ammonia in the NFL, and community health workers for hypertension

Body hacker Josiah Zayner wants us all to use CRISPR to modify our bodies

And give ourselves cancer. I think he forgot the cancer part. From author Rowan Jacobsen:

"Let’s be clear: don’t try this at home! Although hundreds of gene-therapy trials are under way, and many experts believe they will eventually transform almost every aspect of human health, few have been proven safe. When you start scrambling your DNA, very bad things can happen. You can get cancer. Your immune system can attack the unfamiliar DNA, as happened when an 18-year-old with a rare metabolic disorder died during a University of Pennsylvania gene-therapy trial in 1999."

You may recall a link I posted to this guy giving himself a DIY fecal transplant. I'll give him an A+ for marketing. You can't beat the name Gut Hack:

NFL players have decided (not recently, it seems) that inhaling ammonia is performance-enhancing

Instead of something sinister, though, what the widespread use of smelling salts really reveals is the increasingly bizarre culture created by the NFL's (win-at-all-costs pressure cooker. Extreme parity, the minuscule margin of error, the constant threat of injury and million-dollar stakes all push players to exploit any shortcut, no matter how weird, gross or pitiful. More than a century ago in major league baseball, players like Hall of Fame pitcher Pud Galvin thought consuming ground-up monkey testicles was the answer (seriously). A decade ago, football found deer antler spray. Now it's smelling salts.

Not coke, but smelling salts in a cup. I think I would actually prefer ground-up monkey testicles.

More evidence that community health workers improve the care of certain patient populations

(paywall, but the abstract is free)

The proportion of patients with controlled hypertension increased from 17.0% at baseline to 72.9% at 18 months in the intervention group and from 17.6% to 52.2% in the usual care group; the difference in the increase was 20.6% (95% CI, 15.4%-25.9%; P < .001).