Using football as bait for prostate cancer screening

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The following is a guest post by Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher at the University of Victoria, in Victoria BC, and author of the recently released book, “Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease” (Greystone, 2012)


A recent piece by WABC-TV in New York called “Clearing up confusion over PSA testing” looked like news, smelled like news and had the sense of a feel-good public service announcement, urging men to discuss with their doctors the value of a PSA test.   But yikes,  talk about crossing the scrimmage line between news and marketing.   The refs should blow the whistle on this offensive interference.

The storyline has lots going for it in the sex appeal department, where men are given the opportunity of a lifetime to get up close and personal with players from the New York Giants.  The football bait is to lure them into asking their doctor about their prostate health.  And to get a free PSA test while they’re at it.  Not a bad thing, right?

Sadly, linking men’s health concerns and sports is the oldest game in the PR playbook, but this news piece doesn’t even try to get into orbit of the evidence behind the test.  Where are the basic numbers about how many men need to be screened and how many suffer unnecessarily due to the fallout from a PSA test?  Or maybe even telling us one basic thing about our prostates: that most of us men will live quite happily all our lives completely oblivious to the cancer cells statistically certain to be lurking in our prostates.

The story sadly needed to tell us why the best independent body on screening around, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), recently said they wanted to punt the PSA test out of the game.   Or why some researchers have called the PSA test the “Poster Child for Overdiagnosis.”   It might be understandable that many men who have looked closely at the stats refuse to play the PSA game knowing that the fallout can include unnecessary surgery, incontinence and impotence, all because of an abnormal blood reading that most of us, if we live long enough, will get.

Bringing the New York Giants onboard to host a free prostate education event and milking the spectacle of the event is certainly alluring news, but you’d be hard pressed to call this health journalism.    More like a PSA for the PSA.

Me? I figure getting invited in by football players to discuss my “prostate health game plan” and enticed by a free PSA test seems like a “game” alright. A game most men might reasonably avoid if they knew all the things that could go wrong in the hunt for prostate cancer.


Publisher’s Note:  If you watch the TV news clip above,  note the transition from the weak attempt to introduce a balance (acknowledging the USPSTF recommendation against PSA screening) to then interviewing a urologist who “says despite the new guidelines, he still tests most men over the age of 40” and then ending with the anchor woman saying “It is really great that they’re doing this because it’s all about awareness.  If you can get ’em in and get ’em to do the test or just be more aware of it, that’s the first step.” Clear up confusion?  I don’t think so.  I agree with Alan Cassels.


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Ken Leebow

June 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm

My local TV station runs PSAs about getting the PSA test. One of the reporters had prostate cancer. So, that’s the “hook” for men to get tested.

These types of “public service announcements” makes it very difficult to have a conversation with men about the lack of science behind the PSA test.

I’ve stopped talking about it to people. It’s more painful than preparing for a colonoscopy.


June 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Stewart Justman wrote an e-single on this topic–the emphasis on screenings/early detection of prostate cancer, and how it can lead to over diagnosis and end up hurting patients. Very interesting read:

Paul F Davis

July 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for blowing the whistle on this one!

Time out!

Paul F Davis – health coach and consumer advocate