How would you describe your research?
I am doing research in the area of overdiagnosis, specifically overdiagnosis in non-cancer conditions. Overdiagnosis happens when a person receives a diagnosis they don’t need. In other words, they receive a diagnosis that ends up causing more harm than good. The idea that a diagnosis is not necessarily “good” is hard to get your head around, but there are various ways it can happen.
For example, it can happen when a very early form of disease is found in a healthy person, but that disease would never have developed to a point where it causes any symptoms. That person, however, would likely undergo further investigation and may receive treatments with possible harms and potentially no benefit.
My research is trying to determine the methods that can be used to identify the presence and estimate the extent of overdiagnosis in non-cancer conditions and the strengths and limitations of these methods. This information will help guide efforts to quantify the extent of the problem and subsequently to address it.
What made you pursue this area of research?
I have always been interested in our collective enthusiasm with the need for a diagnosis or label for our symptoms and ills. Whilst mostly driven by best intentions, there are other drivers, such as disease mongering where it is both cheaper and faster to invent new “diseases” or “disorders” than new pharmaceutical drugs. Over time, it has become clear that receiving a diagnosis is not necessarily a good thing. The costs and unseen suffering associated with this issue of overdiagnosis are enormous. I am keen to be a part of the movement to address this problem.
How does your work contribute to health system sustainability?
Overdiagnosis is a challenge to the sustainability of healthcare systems worldwide. As our understanding of the risks of overdiagnosis of certain cancers is becoming clearer – the staggering costs and unnecessary suffering become apparent. If we can work out where, how and how much overdiagnosis is happening for at least some common conditions, efforts can focus on ways of addressing it, ultimately allowing the redirection of resources to the treatment and prevention of genuine illness.
How has collaborating with PCHSS impacted your research?
It’s brought new and varying perspectives to the problem. This should, I hope, lead to my research being more relevant and impactful. The motivation and enthusiasm resulting from the opportunity to work with collaborators with a common focus is invaluable.
What was your favourite subject at school?
History. If I wasn’t doing what I am doing now, I would be a historian. I think history is fascinating and exciting and a way of understanding and making sense of the world. Perhaps I was just fortunate to have had interesting and inspiring teachers that sparked a lifelong passion. I realise not everyone is so lucky.
What might you be found doing outside work?
Anything outside, and preferably away from the city. It’s hard to explain the peace it brings to be completely away from the noise and hum of the city and humanity. There is nothing more freeing than walking into the bush with just what you can carry on your back.
What was the last great book you read?
Just about everything I have read over the past few years has been something my children have brought home from school as part of required reading. The best one by far was a book called The Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. Such an original and beautifully written story with underlying messages of courage and endurance. It’s been read multiple times by all members of the household.
Assistant Professor Sharon Sanders’ research interests are in overdiagnosis, including the methods of estimating overdiagnosis, the widening of disease definitions and in minimising research waste. She is part of the Reducing waste and low-value care research stream.