I’ve been a fan of Peggy Girshman’s science and healthcare writing for a long time, so it was with great sadness that I read about her death in March at the young age of 61.
But in tribute to her award-winning journalism career, which included long stints at both NPR and Kaiser Health News, she actually wrote her own eulogy!
She wanted to share a few simple lessons she had learned from her years on the job of reporting healthcare-related stories. Because they resonate with my own view that we need more health and less medicine, I wanted to share some of her words. (But follow the link to read her whole piece!)
One ongoing and often written about problem in our healthcare system is overscreening. Too many mammograms or PSAs (prostate specific antigen) raise red flags too hastily.
Both mammograms and PSAs are finding smaller and more “benign” or low-risk tumors that otherwise might never have been discovered. But because they are labeled as “cancer,” patients understandably want them treated quickly and aggressively.
Ms. Girshman wrote:
For folks with Stage 0 or less cancers, especially DCIS [or ductal carcinoma in situ,] or prostate, watch and wait. I understand. I was one of those people who says, “Get it out of me.” Please resist that temptation.
At least half of these don’t go on to become invasive cancers. Why should you do all kinds of bad things to your body unnecessarily? And, by the way, it costs waaaay too much.
It sure does.
Ms. Girshman, like all the best healthcare reporters and providers, believed in evidence-based medicine: What do the best scientific studies reveal about the effectiveness (or not) of screenings and medications and treatments?
Too much medicine is pushed onto us because of someone else’s agenda—healthcare is an enormous for-profit business, after all. We have to be aware of aggressive marketing tactics and always demand to know what the evidence shows.
Anecdotal evidence, which is a single person’s experience, if often used by the popular media or marketers to highlight a particular disease or treatment because it is so much more emotional and memorable than boring old science. But we mustn’t be fooled.
If you get nothing else from this memorial service, please think about evidence, truth as best it can be determined. Anecdotal evidence is only meaningful if it involves me, Peggy Girshman. Otherwise, trust the scientific method, where similar groups are compared and with large sample sizes, if possible. Especially when it comes to what you put in your body for medicinal reasons.
OK, I know there’s a lot of eye-rolling out there right now. But why would you take anything that hasn’t been proved to work?
But unfortunately a lot of medicine (not to mention the wide range of supplements, herbs and other alternative care) has not been proved to work. In fact, much has been proved to not work, but we keep buying it because someone is selling it.
Girshman includes in her eulogy the hope that she has made a difference, even a small one.
If I only convince one of you to at least convince one other person, I’ve accomplished something. I know, I’ve done so much good work blah blah blah. But even one person not having surgery would be the crowning achievement of my life. I am not kidding.
I share that hope.
If in reading my blog you are inspired to just ask your doctor a few more questions before agreeing to a test or drug, the time spent will be worth it.