New guidelines more than double the number of Americans eligible for lung cancer screening. But experts say it’s not enough.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force on Tuesday expanded recommendations for lung cancer screening, which more than doubles the number of U.S. adults eligible for screening, experts say.
The task force made two significant changes to its lung cancer screening: Annual screenings will begin at age 50, instead of 55, and smoking intensity has been reduced from 30 to 20 pack-year history. This means patients will eligible if they, for example, smoked one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years.
The inclusive criteria are expected to increase eligibility from 6.4 million adults to 14.5 million, according to an editorial by University of North Carolina School of Medicine professors published in JAMA Tuesday.
“There’s a huge need to diagnosing patients early,” said Dr. David Carbone, an oncologist and lung cancer specialist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, who is unaffiliated with the editorial. “When you don’t do screening exams, most lung cancer patients are diagnosed when their incurable.”
While health experts agree the updated recommendations is a good first step to becoming more inclusive, they also say it doesn’t address the urgent issue of low uptake. Many Americans who are eligible for screening, even by the 2013 standards, still don’t get screened for lung cancer, said Carbone. This is partly due to racial inequities, financial barriers, and lack of awareness and education.
People of color who are diagnosed with lung cancer face worse outcomes compared to white Americans partly because they are less likely to be diagnosed early.
Compared to white Americans, Black Americans with lung cancer are 16% less likely to be diagnosed early; Latinos are 13% less likely; and Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are 14% less likely, according to the American Lung Association.
Simply expanding the eligibility pool won’t address racial disparities, argues the UNC School of Medicine editorial.
“Implementation will require broader efforts by payers, health systems and professional societies, and in the future, a more tailored individual risk prediction approach may be preferable,” said Louise M. Henderson, editorial co-author and professor of radiology at UNC School of Medicine.
Financial barriers could also exacerbate racial disparities. Medicaid is not required to cover the task force’s recommended screenings, which could lead to greater inequities if recommendations expand to include more people.
People who receive Medicaid are twice as likely to be smokers than those with private insurance, 26.3% compared to 11.1%, Henderson said, and they are also disproportionately affected by lung cancer.
“This is a significant issue, particularly in the nine states where Medicaid does not cover lung cancer screening,” she said, which are North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Texas, Alaska, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
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Finally, experts say the screening recommendations won’t do any good for patients at risk for lung cancer if they aren’t aware of them. Most patients eligible for screening are recommended by another cancer or pulmonary specialist, or their primary care physician.
As most people don’t regularly visit specialists, eligible patients would most benefit from primary care physicians ordering lung cancer screenings, said Dr. Bernard Park, a thoracic cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who heads the lung cancer screening program.
“To be able to order a lung cancer screening test, you have a quick five-minute discussion with the patient about the risk and benefits, they have to be asymptomatic and then they can go off for their scan,” he said.
However, the American Academy of Family Physicians has yet to release updated guidelines for lung cancer screening since recommending against the practice in 2013. Health experts say primary care physicians may be more encouraged to discuss lung cancer screening if national organizations, such as the AAFP, recommended it.
In a statement to USA TODAY, the AAFP said it has been waiting for the task force to include recent studies and trials to its recommendations before releasing its own.
“The AAFP Commission on Health of the Public and Science is conducting a thorough evidence review of the final updated USPSTF recommendation, so it may be several weeks before a final decision is made,” AAFP President Dr. Ada Stewart said in the statement.
However, even reaching out to patients who are eligible for screening can prove to be difficult. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center contacted about 1,500 patients the center found were eligible through an online quiz, but only 30 people scheduled screenings, Park said.
He said the survey highlighted the significant and complex barriers to lung cancer screening that recommendations fail to address.
“There’s going to be more and more potential modifications (to recommendations) in the future that we look forward to seeing,” he said. “But the main message here is that even with the criteria we have, we’re nowhere screening the number of people we should be.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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