What Newt Gingrich Didn’t Say About His Cancer-Screening Expert

At last night’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich condemned the government’s latest effort to discourage men from reflexively getting blood tests for prostate cancer by citing the views of Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach. Gingrich stressed some of Eschenbach’s prestigious bona fides, including heading the National Cancer Institute and practicing at one of the country’s major cancer centers.

But Gingrich omitted other interesting parts of Eschenbach’s background, including  his affiliation with one of Gingrich’s think tanks and a think tank of a major proponent of the PSA blood test.

First, here’s what Gingrich said at the debate in response to a question about wasteful spending in Medicare:

I am really glad you asked that, because I was just swapping e-mails today with Andy von Eschenbach, who was the head of the National Cancer Institute, the head of the Food and Drug Administration. But before that, he was the provost at M.D. Anderson, the largest cancer treatment center in the world. And he wrote me to point out that the most recent U.S. government intervention on whether or not to have prostate testing is basically going to kill people. So, if you ask me, do I want some Washington bureaucrat to create a class action decision which affects every American’s last two years of life, not ever.

I think it is a disaster. I think, candidly, Governor Palin got attacked unfairly for describing what would, in effect, be death panels.

And what von Eschenbach will tell you if you call him is, the decision to suggest that we not test men with PSA will mean that a number of people who do not have — who are susceptible to a very rapid prostate cancer will die unnecessarily.

Gingrich didn’t mention that the “death panel” claim about the law has consistently been debunked as false. Nor did he say Eschenbach is listed as a “senior advisor” for Gingrich’s think tank, the Center for Health Transformation. Eschenbach also is listed as a senior fellow with the Milken Institute, whose founder, Michael Milken, credits the blood test for saving his life.

Is he an expert on the value of screening tests such as the PSA? Paul Goldberg, publisher of The Cancer Letter, a weekly newsletter covering cancer politics and research, disputes that.

“I wouldn’t call him an expert in prevention; I would call him a urologist,” Goldberg said. He said Gingrich’s laudatory praise of Eschenbach was “eminence-based medicine,” not “evidence-based medicine.”

KHN has been unable to reach Dr. Eschenbach. We called Gingrich’s campaign headquarters, but a campaign worker said they didn’t have his contact information.

jrau@kff.org