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What is overdiagnosis, and is it harmful?

Pennsylvanians may be familiar with the issue of misdiagnosis in the medical world, but they may not know that the topic of overdiagnosis has been a hot one as of late. Overdiagnosis is an especially pertinent issue in the area of breast imaging with regards to the screening of diseases such as breast cancer.

Overdiagnosis is a medical term that refers to correctly identifying or diagnosing a disease early on while it is at its most nascent stage, when treating the disease may not only be deemed unnecessary, but it may actually pose a health risk and be outright harmful to the patient's long term prognosis. This is entirely different from diagnosing a false positive, which is a situation that arises when an administered diagnostic test incorrectly returns a result that confirms the presence of a disease even though the patient has no afflictions whatsoever.

Overdiagnosis is relatively common and can in fact be directly attributed to the ever-expanding definition of disease. Its promulgation is a natural consequence that rises from the commonly held belief that the earlier a disease is identified the more likely it is for the patient to avoid mortality from said disease. Essentially it is a logical consequence of the popular idiom "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

Overdiagnosis can also be cultural. The boundary that delineates healthy from diseased is more or less arbitrarily set. The technology that is used to probe ever deeper into the basic makeup and structure of our bodies continues to improve and uncover abnormalities that were previously unknown but nevertheless harmless and innocuous.

Thus, the threshold for the boundary between diseased and healthy will always be set at a level where it will be more likely that doctors will err on the side of caution by over diagnosing a patient rather than miss the disease entirely. That being said, in some situations treating a disease that does not actually exist can harm a patient. Patients who believe their health has been made worse due to overdiagnosis may need to seek legal help to learn more about the remedies available to them.

Source: Diagnostic Imaging, "Q&A: Problem with Diagnosing, but Not Overdiagnosing, mTBI," Deborah Abrams Kaplan, Aug. 19, 2015

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