From the Journals

Papillary thyroid microcarcinoma: Is ‘less is more’ the right approach?

Key clinical point: Nearly all patients with a preoperative diagnosis of PTMC underwent total thyroidectomy, usually at their surgeon’s recommendation.

Major finding: 95% of preoperatively diagnosed patients underwent total thyroidectomy, versus 69% of those diagnosed postoperatively (P = .02). A discussion of thyroid lobectomy was documented in only one preoperatively diagnosed case.

Data source: A single-center retrospective study of 125 patients with papillary thyroid microcarcinoma.

Disclosures: The National Institutes of Health provided funding. The researchers reported having no conflicts of interest.



Surgeons treated 95% of preoperatively diagnosed cases of papillary thyroid microcarcinoma with total thyroidectomy, compared with only 69% of postoperatively diagnosed cases, in to a single-center retrospective cohort study.

“During the study period, thyroid lobectomy was an acceptable alternative endorsed by the American Thyroid Association,” said Susan C. Pitt, MD, and her associates at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Nonetheless, documentation rarely stated that [thyroid lobectomy] was discussed as an option. Whether this finding indicates a true lack of discussion or a deficit in documentation is unclear, but emphasizes the need to improve the quality of the [electronic health record] and capture all elements of shared decision-making.”

Papillary thyroid microcarcinomas (PTMC) measure 1 cm or less, affect up to a third of adults, and explain about half of the recent rise in rates of papillary thyroid cancer, the investigators stated. Most cases are found incidentally and there is no evidence that they contribute to a rise in mortality, which stands at about 0.5 deaths per 100,000 diagnoses of thyroid carcinoma. Accordingly, in 2015, the American Thyroid Association (ATA) endorsed active surveillance and thyroid lobectomy as acceptable management strategies for most patients with PTMC (Thyroid. 2016 Jan 12;26[1]:1-133).

“The pendulum for the ATA guidelines has swung back and forth,” Dr. Pitt said in an interview. “I think the current 2015 ATA guidelines are still controversial – some surgeons and endocrinologists think we have swung too far [in the other direction]. Moving the field from total thyroidectomy to active surveillance is a big jump. Understanding the factors underlying current decisions will help us to implement less extensive management, like lobectomy and active surveillance.”

To do that, Dr. Pitt and her associates reviewed medical records from 125 patients with PTMC treated at the University of Wisconsin between 2008 and 2016. Most of the patients (90%) were white, 85% were female, average age was 50 years, and nearly all had classic or follicular-variant disease. Only 27% of patients underwent thyroid lobectomy; the rest underwent total thyroidectomy. Furthermore, among 19 patients diagnosed preoperatively, 95% underwent total thyroidectomy and 21% had a complication, including one (5%) case of permanent hypocalcemia that less extensive surgery might have avoided (J Surg Res. 2017;218:237-45).

“In all cases, documentation indicated that these preoperatively diagnosed patients followed the surgeon’s recommendation regarding the extent of surgery,” the researchers wrote. Surgeons cited various reasons for recommending total thyroidectomy, including – in about 20% of cases – a belief that it was the recommended treatment.

Only one of the 19 preoperatively diagnosed patients had a documented discussion of thyroid lobectomy, the researchers found.

While physicians might be concerned about recurrence or other “downstream” outcomes of a less-is-more approach to PTMC, Dr. Pitt noted that, in a recent large study, only 3.4% of these tumors metastasized over 10 years (World J Surg. 2010 Jan;34[1]:28-35).

“At the same time, I think that we have a better sense [that] patient-centered outcomes after thyroidectomy, such as health-related quality of life, swallowing, and voice outcomes, can be worse after a total thyroidectomy,” she added.

As surgical and medical therapies expand for PTMC and other nonmalignant diseases, it becomes increasingly vital that surgeons and patients undertake shared decision-making, she said. At the University of Wisconsin, physicians can enter free text in the EHR to document such discussions. She gave an example of how she does that: “‘Total thyroidectomy and lobectomy are both appropriate approaches for Ms. Smith. We discussed these options at length, including X, Y, and Z. Given Mrs. Smith’s (strong) preference to avoid X, we will proceed with a lobectomy.”

In her own practice, Dr. Pitt added, “when I look back at a note, I want to know what the decision was, and why it was made.”

Shared decision-making differs from informed consent by focusing on patient preferences, she noted. “I have used my notes in the operating room to help me decide what to do. I can look back and have a window into our conversation and what an individual patient values.” For PTMC, shared decisions should focus less on cancer risk and more on quality of life and outcomes a year later, she said.

“Patients don’t die from PTMC, and most live longer than the age-matched population. Given the risks of more extensive surgery and our current data on surgical and patient-centered outcomes, I think that thyroid lobectomy should be the initial treatment for most patients with PTMC, and surgeons should help their patients make informed decisions,” Dr. Pitt said.

The National Institutes of Health provided funding. The researchers reported having no conflicts of interest.

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