Heavy smokers and former heavy smokers should get annual lung cancer screening tests, according to final guidelines issued on Monday by an influential U.S. panel.
The final recommendations, issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, apply to people aged 55 to 80 whose smoking has put them at high risk of cancer. That includes former heavy smokers who have quit within the past 15 years. Heavy smokers are considered to be those who smoked a pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15 years.
According to a comprehensive review of medical evidence since 2004, the panel found the benefits of screening high-risk individuals with low-dose computed tomography, or CT scans, outweigh the potential harms of overdiagnosis and increased exposure to radiation, which also contribute to cancer risk.
The panel, which is comprised of independent experts and advises U.S. policymakers, gave the screening a “B” recommendation, meaning it is at least moderately certain that the benefits of the scans outweigh the harms. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to cover preventive services with a grade of “B” or higher.
The guidelines are intended to help prevent some of the 160,000 annual lung cancer deaths in the United States, which exceed the total number of deaths from breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer, resulting in about 85 percent of lung cancers in the United States.
The guidelines largely fall in line with recommendations from most major groups of cancer experts, including the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
When the initial recommendations were published in July, some doctors expressed concern that the guidelines could lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment of cancers, in much the same way that widespread screening programs for breast and prostate cancers have done.