Readers of MassTortDefense involved in the defense of medical monitoring cases will want to follow the ongoing debate occasioned by the New York Times story this week, quoting Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, admitting that American medicine has over-promised when it comes to medical screening and that the advantages of screening have been “exaggerated.”
Medical monitoring, whether a remedy or cause of action, is a claim for the cost of medical screening for a plaintiff exposed to a toxic substance allegedly because of the defendant’s wrongful conduct and who is accordingly at risk of future disease. Medical monitoring is designed to early detect the disease and thus maximize the chances of a cure or beneficial treatment.
As a an advocacy matter, medical monitoring is presented by plaintiffs with the seemingly unchallengeable notion that early detection saves lives. Plaintiff attorneys rely heavily on juror pre-loads about the importance and benefits of screening; virtually every juror has had a Pap smear, or mammogram, or prostrate test, and they have all been inundated with messages from the American Cancer Society that screening is highly efficacious– messages that ignore the risks of screening. Defendants fight an uphill battle when they try to get the jury to keep an open mind about the risks and benefits of plaintiffs’ experts’ proposed screening program.
Reportedly, the ACS is now working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasize that screening for breast, prostate, and other cancers can come with a real risk. Those risks include not only the risks of the screening procedures themselves (such as radiation), but the risks of false positives, and the follow-on risks of over-treating a nodule that would never have developed into life-threatening disease. On the flip side, many researchers point out that the prostate cancer screening test has not been shown to prevent prostate cancer deaths. Similar lack of benefit has been noted with chest x-rays and CT scans for lung cancer. If cancer screening was really as effective as plaintiffs assert, the cancers that once were found late, when they were untreatable or incurable, would now be found earlier, when they could be treated and cured. Thus, a large increase in early cancers found would be accompanied by a decline in late-stage cancers, and an improvement in mortality. That just hasn’t happened for many types of screening.
Whether the issue is the screening tool or the screening itself, plaintiffs should no longer be allowed to base their medical monitoring claims on a widely accepted misconception that all screening is good, and all early detection saves lives. Defense attorneys may have a juror pool more receptive to the evidence-based argument that plaintiffs must be held to their burden of proof to show that a monitoring procedure exists that makes early detection of the disease possible; the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.