Does Not Testing the PSA Lead to More Advanced Prostate Cancer?

Mortality from prostate cancer has diminished by almost 40% since the introduction of the PSA test in the late 1980’s. Much of this is due to the use of the PSA blood test for screening purposes. In 2011 The US Preventive Screening Task Force strongly condemned the use of PSA screening. They felt that we were finding too many inconsequential early malignancies that would not lead to death and were being over treated. In their eyes, prostate cancer treatment with surgery and or radiation carried a high price tag with multiple long term complications and the benefit of screening was not worth the risk. Prior to the USPSTF”s 2011 recommendation against screening for prostate cancer with a PSA there were 9000 – 12,000 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed per month. In the month following the USPSTF recommendation not to screen with PSA the number of new cases dropped by almost 1400 a month or over 12%. Over the next year the decline in prostate cancer diagnosis was 37.9 % for low-risk prostate cancer, 28.1% for intermediate risk, 23.1 5 for high risk and 1.1% for non-localized cancer. Clearly if you do not look for a disease you will not find it.

In the December issue of the Journal of Urology, Daniel Barocas, MD, of Vanderbilt University and colleagues discussed the PSA testing controversy. They too noted that the consequences of not screening for intermediate and high risk prostate cancer by performing the PSA test may lead to individuals presenting with far more advanced disease that is more difficult to treat, has more complications and ultimately leads to disease related deaths. His position was debated by two major urologists in the editorial section of the journal with no firm conclusion being reached.

In an unrelated article, the Center for Medicare Services or CMS announced that it is considering penalizing physicians who test the PSA for screening in Medicare patients beginning in 2018 as part of their paying for value and quality. They said that physicians need to present their patients with an ABN (advanced beneficiary notice) stating that Medicare will not pay for this test, before the blood is drawn or face fines and penalties.

Men in their forties and older have been put in an uncomfortable and inappropriate position by health policy leaders. The truth is we are currently unsure how and when to test for prostate cancer in men with a normal digital rectal exam (DRE). The consequences of not paying for screening will not be known or understood for easily ten to fifteen years. It is clear that early stage disease has the option to be observed for progression with minimal consequences in the short term. Not enough time has elapsed for anyone to know the long term effects of this policy change. Unfortunately, men in this age group are all guinea pigs in the public health policy laboratory while the data to reach a firm scientific conclusion is assembled. The predominant policy today is spending less and doing less. With this in mind, it is best for men to see their doctor, have an annual digital rectal exam, discuss their family history of prostate disease and reach an individual decision on PSA screening appropriate for their unique situation rather than one based on large population policy.

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