A definition and ethical evaluation of overdiagnosis

Stacy M. Carter, Chris Degeling, Jenny Doust, Alexandra Barratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Overdiagnosis is an emerging problem in health policy and practice: we address its definition and ethical implications. We argue that the definition of overdiagnosis should be expressed at the level of populations. Consider a condition prevalent in a population, customarily labelled with diagnosis A. We propose that overdiagnosis is occurring in respect of that condition in that population when (1) the condition is being identified and labelled with diagnosis A in that population (consequent interventions may also be offered); (2) this identification and labelling would be accepted as correct in a relevant professional community; but (3) the resulting label and/or intervention carries an unfavourable balance between benefits and harms. We identify challenges in determining and weighting relevant harms, then propose three central ethical considerations in overdiagnosis: the extent of harm done, whether harm is avoidable and whether the primary goal of the actor/s concerned is to benefit themselves or the patient, citizen or society. This distinguishes predatory (avoidable, self-benefiting), misdirected (avoidable, other-benefiting) and tragic (unavoidable, other-benefiting) overdiagnosis; the degree of harm moderates the justifiability of each type. We end with four normative challenges: (1) methods for adjudicating between professional standards and identifying relevant harms and benefits should be procedurally just; (2) individuals, organisations and states are differently responsible for addressing overdiagnosis; (3) overdiagnosis is a matter for distributive justice: the burdens of both overdiagnosis and its prevention could fall on the least-well-off; and (4) communicating about overdiagnosis risks harming those unaware that they may have been overdiagnosed. These challenges will need to be addressed as the field develops.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)705-714
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Medical Ethics
Volume42
Issue number11
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2016

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evaluation
distributive justice
weighting
health policy
Population
citizen
Medical Overuse
Harm
Evaluation
community
Social Justice
Health Policy
Organizations
Society

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Carter, Stacy M. ; Degeling, Chris ; Doust, Jenny ; Barratt, Alexandra. / A definition and ethical evaluation of overdiagnosis. In: Journal of Medical Ethics. 2016 ; Vol. 42, No. 11. pp. 705-714.
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A definition and ethical evaluation of overdiagnosis. / Carter, Stacy M.; Degeling, Chris; Doust, Jenny; Barratt, Alexandra.

In: Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 42, No. 11, 25.10.2016, p. 705-714.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

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AU - Carter, Stacy M.

AU - Degeling, Chris

AU - Doust, Jenny

AU - Barratt, Alexandra

N1 - Published by the BMJ Publishing Group Limited. For permission to use (where not already granted under a licence) please go to http://www.bmj.com/company/products-services/rights-and-licensing/

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N2 - Overdiagnosis is an emerging problem in health policy and practice: we address its definition and ethical implications. We argue that the definition of overdiagnosis should be expressed at the level of populations. Consider a condition prevalent in a population, customarily labelled with diagnosis A. We propose that overdiagnosis is occurring in respect of that condition in that population when (1) the condition is being identified and labelled with diagnosis A in that population (consequent interventions may also be offered); (2) this identification and labelling would be accepted as correct in a relevant professional community; but (3) the resulting label and/or intervention carries an unfavourable balance between benefits and harms. We identify challenges in determining and weighting relevant harms, then propose three central ethical considerations in overdiagnosis: the extent of harm done, whether harm is avoidable and whether the primary goal of the actor/s concerned is to benefit themselves or the patient, citizen or society. This distinguishes predatory (avoidable, self-benefiting), misdirected (avoidable, other-benefiting) and tragic (unavoidable, other-benefiting) overdiagnosis; the degree of harm moderates the justifiability of each type. We end with four normative challenges: (1) methods for adjudicating between professional standards and identifying relevant harms and benefits should be procedurally just; (2) individuals, organisations and states are differently responsible for addressing overdiagnosis; (3) overdiagnosis is a matter for distributive justice: the burdens of both overdiagnosis and its prevention could fall on the least-well-off; and (4) communicating about overdiagnosis risks harming those unaware that they may have been overdiagnosed. These challenges will need to be addressed as the field develops.

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