A definition and ethical evaluation of overdiagnosis.
Date of this Version
NHMRC 1023197 and 1032963
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.
This document has been peer reviewed.