Health Advances May Not Mean Good Health

Americans are taking more pills, having more procedures and getting more scans than ever before. But is more health care making us healthier?

"More is not always better. These technologies can offer benefit but too much of them can certainly lead to harm," said Dr. Elliot Fisher, director of population health and policy at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

Fisher is referring to the use of CAT scans, PET scans and MRIs - imaging tests that have more than tripled in 10 years, reports CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

The benefit is earlier diagnoses. The problem - an estimated 35 percent of scans are unnecessary, often leading to radiation exposure and more tests.

"If I were a patient, I'd ask two questions: 'Help me understand the risks and benefits of these procedures? And by the way doctor, do you have a financial interest in ordering this particular test?'" asked Fisher.

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Prescription drug use has also exploded. The percentage of people taking three or more medications has almost doubled - from 11 percent between 1988 and 1994 to 21 percent between 2003 and 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That has benefits and risks.

For example, while the number of adults taking cholesterol-lowering statins has jumped tenfold, a benefit may be that the deaths linked to heart disease have plunged by more than 22 percent from 2000 to 2006.

But experts warn popping pills can't replace healthy habits.

"It's easy and attractive to take a pill [and] often they make a big difference, but they're never enough," said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "We have to learn how to be more physically active. We have to learn how to eat less and eat more healthy food."

Now that Americans are living into their late 70s, more are replacing worn-out parts.

In the last 10 years, the number of people receiving knee replacements increased 70 percent. Experts say that procedures like knee and hip replacements are overdone.

It's clear that technology has its benefits. But it's also clear that throwing money at pills and procedures can't buy good health.

"Our data would suggest that we're not getting our money's worth," said Fried.

To help patients get their money's worth, doctors need to clearly explain the pros and cons of everything they suggest. And that includes helping then understand that sometimes the best option is … nothing at all.
  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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