Screening not a cure-all

By Hana Garrett-Walker

New Zealanders have over-inflated beliefs that cancer screening and preventative medicine will save their lives, according to a new study.

Research by the University of Otago in Christchurch this week revealed the majority of those surveyed overestimated the effects of breast cancer screening, bowel cancer screening, hip fracture preventive medication, and heart disease preventive medication.

About half believed breast cancer screening was 10 times more effective in saving lives than it actually was.

Lead researcher Dr Ben Hudson, who also works part time as a GP, said the results raised doubts whether people were really making clear and balanced decisions.

Cancer Society screening advisor Sarah Penno, agrees: "People do need the balanced information presented in a way that's easily accessible ... to make sure people are making informed choices."

The Otago University research, which questioned 977 patients and received 354 completed responses, asked what benefits were likely from screenings and preventive medication and at which point they would consider using intervention.

Ninety per cent of respondents overestimated the effect of breast cancer screening, 94 per cent overestimated the effect of bowel cancer screening, 82 per cent overestimated the effect of hip fracture preventive medication, and 69 per cent overestimated the effect of preventive medication for cardiovascular disease.

Hudson said the results, published this week, were in line with research completed overseas.

Penno said she was not surprised with the results, and said the tendency to vastly overestimate screening effectiveness came back to how information had been presented in the past.

In the past the benefits had been over-played and the harms had been played-down, or not even mentioned.

But that seemed to be shifting, particularly in the past five years."I think there's been an international shift, and an increasing awareness that people deserve more balanced information so they're able to make better informed choices, whether or not to participate in screening programmes."


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