Readers Weigh In: The Worst Healthcare Predictions of the Past 20 Years

Brandon Cohen

Disclosures

November 20, 2015

Predicting the future is a dubious endeavor, but that does not stop both professional and amateur forecasters from reading the tea leaves on everything from weather to sports to politics. Healthcare certainly has its share of prognosticators, and although some of them may have hit the mark, others made guesses that now appear laughable.

In honor of Medscape's 20th anniversary, a recent article asked physicians and other professionals to weigh in on the worst predictions of the past 20 years. A wide variety of results came back, covering a broad range of specialties, taking to task the worst prophesies made during those two heady decades.

A primary care physician kicked things off with a recollection:

In the 1990s, it was predicted that there would be an oversupply of physicians. As a result, the University of Toronto cut back the number of seats in the medical school from 252 to 176. Others did the same. Now we have a shortage of physicians because they neglected to consider retirement.

Several colleagues concurred, and some were worried that a poor read on the future could leave us short crucial expertise to deal with an aging population.

Another of the most frequently attacked predications was that electronic health records (EHRs) would be a positive step forward for the medical field. "EHR would achieve the miracle of improving care, improving efficiency, and reducing costs associated with medical care," a primary care physician remembered hearing. "What a joke. Health information technology has done none of the above."

But another primary care physician disagreed and wrote:

The newly trained doctors would disagree with you; they say that EHR only makes natural sense [and that] paper charting is old and outdated. We need to make it [EHR] user-friendly.

Another commonly attacked forecast was the claim that a low-fat diet would yield a healthier population.

"What a terrible, terrible health policy disaster," wrote one primary care physician. "It is still causing millions of cases of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and mood disorders."

A colleague agreed wholeheartedly:

Yes, this is huge! Simple sugars and carbohydrates have ruined the health of our society. In the '70s, we were made to believe grainy bread and natural honey was the key to a healthy diet. We threw out eggs, cheese, and meats. We turned into a generation of fat, overcarbed Americans. 

More than a few bold predictions were made in the past 20 years claiming that a disease would be cured. Many of these have failed to live up to the ambitious claims.

"More than 10 years ago, several investigators predicted that we will have treatment for Alzheimer disease. Despite lots of research, we are no closer to effective treatment than 10 years ago," wrote a geriatrician.

"'The cure for type 1 Diabetes is 10 years or less away.' This has been said now for over 90 years," wrote another healthcare provider.

Others chided bold predictions that had claimed a cure for cancer was imminent.

But an infectious disease specialist disagreed:

[One of the] worst predictions is that cancer will not be cured. Here again, the grumblers want everything done at once. In fact, just the opposite is happening.

But a cynical administrator countered, "As long as cancer is so profitable, we won't have a cure."

An ophthalmologist remembered talk that "Glasses would be obsolete. Everybody would be seeing clearly after having LASIK!"

But it also cut the other way: The past 20 years saw some dire warnings of oncoming disasters that mercifully never arrived.

A pain management specialist remembered the voices of doom claiming that "H1N5 would become the pandemic of influenza that would rival the Spanish flu of 1918."

Other doctors heaped scorn on some of the most heated rhetoric concerning Ebola, which some predicted would kill millions. There were others who recalled that in the 1990s, decimation was predicted for North America and Europe from AIDS.

Many other practitioners felt that new tools and processes that were supposed to transfigure medicine have not lived up to their billing. A urologist condemned "the prediction that the Human Genome Project would revolutionize healthcare." That physician continued by adding, "Modest gains have been made based on genetic profiling, but nowhere near the expected major changes in healthcare." 

But a colleague disagreed, or at least urged patience:

There is still a lot of information to process. We were able to read it and decode a few genes, but it will take a long time for us to know the entire human genome.

Other dissatisfactions were aired, from the political to the personal. But the final word goes to a rueful internist who recalled what, in his eyes, was the worst prediction of the past 20 years: "that primary care physicians would finally be paid the salary they deserve."

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