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Medicine’s much hailed ability to help the sick is fast being challenged by its propensity to harm the healthy. A burgeoning scientific literature is fuelling public concerns that too many people are being overdosed, overtreated, and overdiagnosed. Screening programmes are detecting early cancers that will never cause symptoms or death, sensitive diagnostic technologies identify “abnormalities” so tiny they will remain benign, while widening disease definitions mean people at ever lower risks receive permanent medical labels and lifelong treatments that will fail to benefit many of them. With estimates that more than $200bn (£128bn; €160bn) may be wasted on unnecessary treatment every year in the United States, the cumulative burden from overdiagnosis poses a significant threat to human health.
This document has been peer reviewed.