This Theodore Dalrymple post is a variation on a conventional argument whose unstated main premise is that medical cost decisions should be evaluated from a public-health perspective.
The annual medical is a kind of ceremonial or ritual which, according to its critics, is without rational foundation despite the fact that so many patients, and perhaps a majority of doctors, believe in it. This proves that superstition is not dead: but perhaps that is no fatal criticism of the annual medical after all, because superstition will never be dead. If it does not attach to one thing, it will attach to another.
[. . .]
In fact, most medicals are bureaucratic procedures rather than exercises in getting-to-know-you (as The King and I put it). The doctor asks a few questions, ticks some boxes on a computer screen, performs a perfunctory physical examination equivalent to examining a cubic inch of haystack to find a pin, and does a few selected blood tests, the interpretation of whose abnormal results (if any) will be far from straightforward. In fact, what has been done and measured in annual medicals over the years has changed, without any change in their ineffectiveness.
Ineffective for whom?
The answer depends on who is paying the bill. If it’s third parties such as govts or insurance companies then the conventional argument has merit: maximizing system utility is an important goal. However, if patients control their own medical spending then the main goals should be whatever the individual customers want them to be.
Dalrymple’s analyses are usually much better than this one. Perhaps his frame blindness in this case is a function of his background with the NHS.