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The Converged Experience of Risk and Disease

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Context: One underappreciated consequence of modern clinical and public health practices is that the experience of being at risk for disease has been converging with the experience of disease itself. This is especially true for certain chronic diseases, in which early diagnosis and aggressive treatment have led to symptom-less and sign-less disease and in which treatments have largely been aimed at altering the disease's future course.

Methods: This article reviews the historical scholarship and medical literature pertinent to transformations in the chronic disease and risk experiences.

Findings: The experience of chronic disease increasingly resembles or has become indistinguishable from risk because of (1) new clinical interventions that have directly changed the natural history of disease; (2) increased biological, clinical, and epidemiological knowledge about the risk of chronic disease; (3) the recruitment of larger numbers into chronic disease diagnoses via new screening and diagnostic technology and disease definitions; (4) new ways of conceptualizing efficacy; and (5) intense diagnostic testing and medical interventions.

Conclusions: The converged experience of risk and disease has led to some unsettling and generally underappreciated consequences that might be subjected to more clinical and policy reflection and response: (1) some puzzling trends in medical decision making, such as the steep and uniform increase in the numbers of women across a broad spectrum of risk/disease in breast cancer who have opted for prophylactic mastectomies; (2) a larger and highly mobilized disease/risk population, resulting in an expanded market for interventions and greater clout for disease advocates; (3) shifts in the perceived severity of the disease, with ripple effects on how people experience and understand their illness and risk of disease; and (4) interventions that promise both to reduce the risk of disease and to treat its symptoms.
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Keywords: Risk; chronic disease; efficacy; history of medicine; medical decision making; medicalization; prevention; screening

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Pennsylvania

Publication date: June 1, 2009

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