A Medical Task Force That IMPACTS Virtually Every Primary Care Patient and Practice

Douglas K. Owens, MD, MS.

Most Americans outside the field of medicine likely would give you a puzzled look if you asked what they thought of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

But ask primary care clinicians and they’ll tell you the task force is one of the key sources for recommendations about preventive health care. The guidelines issued by the 16-member task force—a volunteer panel of nationally recognized experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine—impact virtually every primary care patient and practice in the United States.

Douglas K. Owens, the Henry J. Kaiser, Jr. Professor and director of both the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research in the Department of Medicine and the Center for Health Policy at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, was named vice chairperson of the task force in spring 2017. He will serve as vice chair for two years, then chair the independent body of experts who issue evidence-based guidelines about preventive care.

“Our goal is to provide guidelines clinicians trust. To do that, we review the scientific evidence very comprehensively, we get input from some of the nation’s leading experts in primary care and evidence evaluation, and we have very robust policies to prevent conflicts of interest,” Owens says. “Under the Affordable Care Act, preventive interventions that we recommend as grade A or B must be covered by commercial payers without a co-pay, which means our guidelines can have a huge impact on preventive services delivered in primary care.”

The task force assigns each recommendation a letter grade based on the strength of the evidence and the balance of benefits and harms of a preventive service

Task force members come from health-related fields including internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, behavioral health, obstetrics and gynecology, and nursing. They have a broad portfolio that covers child, adult, and obstetrical primary care, with some 70 active guidelines.

“We evaluate screenings, preventive medications, and behavioral interventions,” Owens says.

Topics include screening for lung, breast, colon, prostate, cervical, skin, and thyroid cancer as well as screening for infectious diseases including HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis, and syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Recommendations on preventive medications include statins and aspirin for prevention of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.

“We also make lifestyle and behavioral recommendations,” Owens adds, “which are of course among the most important activities that people can do to stay healthy.”

A recent draft task force recommendation, for example, called on seniors to get more exercise to prevent falls, rather than rely on Vitamin D supplements.

“Through his work, Dr. Owens enables Stanford Medicine to advance its mission to precisely predict and prevent disease,” says Stanford School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor, MD. “As our country faces an increasingly diverse, aging patient population and rising health care costs, I am thrilled that Dr. Owens will contribute his perspective and expertise to this national task force.”

The task force was created in 1984 and is supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All recommendations are published on the task force’s website and/or in a peer-reviewed journal.

“The task force has very rigorous methods for assessing evidence, and we are fortunate to have state-of-the-art evidence reviews provided by AHRQ-funded Evidence-Based Practice Centers,” Owens says.

Each year, the task force makes a report to Congress that identifies critical evidence gaps in research related to clinical prevention services and recommends priority areas that deserve further attention. All their reports and recommendations are made public on the task force website and leave room for public comment.