US Preventative Services Task Force Supports Annual CT Scans for Heavy Smokers!

The US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) has released new recommendations in favor of annual CT lung cancer screening for long-term smokers. The decision is yet another step forward for screening advocates and the change in policy has the potential to save 20,000 lives each year, experts say.

This recommendation follows the release of the results of the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) in 2011.  This large trial, enrolling more than 50,000 patients, showed a 20% reduction in lung cancer mortality in screened patients aged 55-74 with 30 or more pack-years of smoking.  The recommendations by the USPSTF are similar to the NLST criteria, though the USPSTF calls out long term smokers aged 55- 79.  The number of recommended annual screenings is noticeably absent from the draft recommendation. The Task Force’s final recommendation with be issued in approximately three to six months.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US, with over 200,000 people diagnosed with the disease annually. Nearly 90 percent of those who are diagnosed die from the disease because it isn’t detected until it’s reached an advanced stage of cancer. However, screening those who are high risk for the disease means there is a greater chance to catch the cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage.

The USPSTF’s recommendations could potentially change medical practice by making annual CT screening the standard of care for high risk smokers. Additionally, because insurers cover procedures that are highly recommended by the USPSTF, those eligible patients would no longer have to handle the burden of paying for screening exams. In fact, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, eligible candidates would have no co-pay.

At UCSF, we strongly support annual low-dose lung cancer CT screening exams for long-term smokers. Remember, never smoking is the best defense against lung cancer, but for those who are eligible, screening is your best chance to catch the disease at an early stage.

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