CT Scans for Smokers

Current and former smokers over the age of 55 should receive annual screenings for lung cancer, even before symptoms are present, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends.

The task force, which helps determine which tests and therapies are covered under the nation’s new healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, issued the recommendation Tuesday. Specifically, they said doctors should use low-dose computed tomography—or CT scans—for people at a higher risk of lung cancer.

“The more you smoke over time, the more at risk you are for lung cancer. When deciding who should be screened, clinicians will need to assess the person’s age, overall health, how much the person has smoked, and whether the person is still smoking or how many years it has been since the person quit,” task force co-chair Dr. Michael LeFevre said in a statement. “This evaluation will help clinicians decide whether it may be beneficial to screen a given person.”

The new statement is a break from the panel’s 2004 recommendation that CT scans were unnecessary unless a patient was showing symptoms of lung cancer.

Currently, 37 percent of American adults smoke, which is the largest contributor to lung cancer, the nation’s leading cause of cancer death. Those over the age of 55 are more likely to develop lung cancer, with a 90 percent chance of it being fatal.

Since early diagnosis improves a person’s chance of survival, the task force reasons that CT scans can prevent unnecessary deaths by catching cancer before symptoms arise.

While the panel recommends early screening, other experts warn of the dangers of over-screening for lung and other cancers. In a recent article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, leading cancer experts urged caution about routine screenings.

“Although no physician has the intention to overtreat or overdiagnose cancer, screening and patient awareness have increased the chance of identifying a spectrum of cancers, some of which are not life threatening,” they wrote.

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