In 1976 when I began my internship in internal medicine almost all cigarette smokers 35 years of age or older received an annual chest x ray to screen for lung cancer. In the 1990’s as managed care and insurers’ stopped paying for these screenings, we were told by the experts that the cost of saving one life by looking at every smoker was not cost effective. Insurance companies stopped paying for these films at the same time that medical advisory boards insisted on clinicians sending their chest x-rays out to be read by radiologists, adding extra costs to each film.
The practice of routine screening virtually disappeared. With it came a large increase in the number of smoking related deaths from lung cancer. It took the “experts” almost two decades to realize the errors of their decision.
In 2014 the US Preventive Services Task Force endorsed performing low dose computed tomography (CT Scans) in patients who were a high risk for lung cancer. This group was defined as individuals aged 55 to 80 years who had smoked at least 30 pack years (computed as number of packages of cigarettes smoked per day times the years the individual smoked) in individuals who continued to smoke or had quit within the last 15 years. The data to back up this recommendation came from Ping Yang, MD, PhD and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic. Their research and the new recommendations have helped reduce lung cancer deaths by 20%.
Since these recommendations were instituted, Dr. Yang and colleagues have continued to evaluate the guidelines. They found that individuals who quit smoking 15 -30 years ago are being diagnosed with lung cancer at a rate of 12-17 % of the newly diagnosed cases. They consequently are now recommending that we screen all adults 55- 80 with a 30 pack year history even if they quit more than 15 years ago.
The US Preventive Services Task Force which produces the recommendations that insurers consider has not yet endorsed this suggestion. In our practice we will be recommending low dose CT lung scanning annually on all our smokers who meet the Mayo Clinic criteria. If you, as my patient, fall into that group and have not been getting annual low dose CT Scanning of the lung for lung cancer detection please let us know so that we may set up a surveillance program. We understand the increased cost and ionizing radiation exposure that CT Scans involve but Dr Wang’s research suggests that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks.