An article by Hugo Wilcken in the Medical Journal of Australia InSight page turned me onto the discussion over ‘Diagnosis Creep’. Essentially this is coined as a negative term for the change in definitions of diseases which causes an increase in those diagnosed with that disease which prior to the change would be otherwise considered as not having it. An example would be osteoporosis where in 2008 a new definition was adopted and instantly changed the affected population of women from 21% to 72%! Similarly changes to definitions have created ‘pre-‘ conditions in the diseases of diabetes and hypertension. Wilcken contends that what makes these changes diagnosis creep is that they do not offer health benefits as the treatments do not successfully aid to overall health or well-being.
Some factors have been forwarded to explain diagnosis creep. One such idea is that of the ‘pre’ classification of diseases. Therefore, you may not clinically have the disease, but you are at risk of contracting it. Another theory is that the expert panels who decide on what clinical factors are needed to lead to a diagnosis are made up of clinicians who specialize in their field. These experts, in order to be able to treat effectively, tend to be more inclusive than exclusive when re-examining factors and therefore lessen the threshold for diseases.
Then there is the nasty side of diagnosis creep. There seems to be a pervasive concern that pharmaceutical companies have a wayward hand in expanding the population with certain diseases in order to increase sales of medications for that disease. The MJA InSight article discusses this as ‘Big Phrama’ and contends that some ‘expert panel’ members are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies- leading to potential conflicts of interest. A similar argument was made in an article in The Conversation in 2016.
No matter what the reasons diseases are being re-defined to include more patients an article in the Australian Prescriber magazine sums up the reason for this post:
Health professionals should be more aware, and patients and the public better informed, about the controversy surrounding many contemporary definitions of disease. Diagnostic criteria are not set in stone – they are regularly changed, often with the best of intentions, but are also often rigorously challenged because of the potential for unintended harms.
In Australia the issue has been seen as serious enough that the NPS group has developed an entire campaign entitled “Choose Wisely” to inform and attempt to tackle the need for certain tests, treatments and procedures. Readers of this blog can also follow the Choose Wisely campaign on Twitter at @ChooseWiselyAU.
Before the MJA article I had not known about diagnosis creep, nor the controversy surrounding it. However, the issue does make sense. All healthcare professionals should be conscious of how and why patients are being diagnosed with diseases and what treatments are being given. While I do recognize the need for disease management and appropriate medications I also recognize that we can easily over-medicate and the elimination of any unneeded treatment would be valuable, particularly in the elderly. I applaud the works of Wilcken and the NPS at serving as a checks-and-balance system in this most important area.