Important Studies on CT Scans and Lung Cancer Make Headlines, Generate Debate

In the last few months I’ve read several stories concerning research about CT screenings for lung cancer.

In mid-November, there was a story making the rounds among the major news outlets about a study that found that CT lung scans can reduce the risk of lung cancer death among former and current heavy smokers. During the excitement of this study, a New York Times piece was published that expressed concern that the study’s findings could easily be taken out of context – and perhaps incite unnecessary fear, as well as drive demand for unnecessary scans.

I’d like to point out the importance of this study: it showed a 20 percent reduction in mortality in patients at very high-risk who were screened with low dose CT compared to patients who were not. Several things to keep in mind about this study – first, it was a study of patients with 30 or more pack-years of smoking history. Second, the technique was a quick and a low dose CT. And third, the costs of false positive findings and their workup have not yet been analyzed.

Now, another study is gaining traction that provides even more support for the findings of the November study. While this data suggests that screening can lower lung cancer mortality substantially in high-risk individuals, what we don’t yet know is the cost of a QUALY – a quality adjusted life-year. Calculating that cost involves knowing how much society had to expend paying for CT exams and the costs of false-positive results in order to capture a saved life-year in an at-risk person. Generally, if you can save a QUALY for $50,000 or less, it’s worth doing. If more, it’s a debate.

Just some things I’ve been thinking about as more and more news agencies report on these findings. I’m interested in learning what you think – what’s your opinion on these studies? Was the New York Times piece correct in its cautionary tone? Or could these findings, in fact, be as revolutionary as some reporters (and researchers) want us to believe?

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