When Less Is More: Some Health Screenings Deemed Risky

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A government-backed physicians' group, the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force, recommended this week that women delay their yearly breast exams until age 50. (Previously, 40 was the suggested age to begin screening.) The recommendation has quickly sparked a national debate. People intuitively feel that more tests are always better, but health economists and doctors practicing "evidence-based medicine" say that some screenings aren't worth doing as often: They don't actually help many patients, they expose millions to risks from radiation, and they can lead to expensive, unnecessary treatments for patients who wouldn't otherwise get sick.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is The Takeaway's culture critic and a writer for Salon.com. She's been getting mammograms for years even though she's noticeably younger than the new recommended cutoff age...but she has no plans to stop. We also talk to Michael Chernew, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. Economists like Chernew run the numbers that lead to some of these controversial suggestions. And Dr. Gerald Andriole, professor and chief of urology at Washington University in St. Louis, does prostate screenings – yet another preventive-care practice now under scrutiny for its evidence-based results.