Begley: Why Doctors Hate Science | Newsweek Voices - Sharon Begley | Newsweek.com
If bureaucrats were in charge, physicians might have to prescribe the newest hypertension drugs as a first-line therapy, do MRIs to diagnose back pain and give regular Pap tests to women who have had total hysterectomies. Oh, wait—they do. All these medical practices are common, despite rigorous studies showing how useless or wrongheaded they are. Definitive studies over many years have shown that old-line diuretics are safer and equally effective for high blood pressure compared with newer drugs, for instance, and that MRIs for back pain lead to unnecessary surgery. And those Pap tests? Total hysterectomy removes the uterus and cervix. A Pap test screens for cervical cancer. No cervix, no cancer. Yet a 2004 study found that some 10 million women lacking a cervix were still getting Pap tests.
It's hard not to scream when you see how many physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical-device makers and, lately, hysterical conservatives seem to hate science, or at best ignore it. These days the science that inspires fear and loathing is "comparative-effectiveness research" (CER), which is receiving $1 billion under the stimulus bill President Obama signed. CER means studies to determine which treatments, including drugs, are more medically and cost-effective for a given ailment than others. A study in February in the journal Lancet, for instance, compared treatments for severe ankle sprains, concluding that a below-the-knee cast is superior to a tubular compression bandage. A 2006 study of schizophrenia drugs found that old-line antipsychotics were as effective as pricey new ones.