Original Research

Timely Diagnosis of Lung Cancer in a Dedicated VA Referral Unit with Endobronchial Ultrasound Capability

A dedicated referral clinic with pulmonary consultation and access to diagnostic screening modalities minimized delays in diagnosis and treatment potential lung cancer.

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References

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US, with 154 050 deaths in 2018. 1 There have been many attempts to reduce mortality of the disease through early diagnosis with use of computed tomography (CT). The National Lung Cancer Screening trial showed that screening high-risk populations with low-dose CT (LDCT) can reduce mortality. 2 However, implementing LDCT screening in the clinical setting has proven challenging, as illustrated by the VA Lung Cancer Screening Demonstration Project (LCSDP). 3 A lung cancer diagnosis typically comprises several steps that require different medical specialties; this can lead to delays. In the LCSDP, the mean time to diagnosis was 137 days. 3 There are no federal standards for timeliness of lung cancer diagnosis.

The nonprofit RAND Corporation is the only American research organization that has published guidelines specifying acceptable intervals for the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. In Quality of Care for Oncologic Conditions and HIV, RAND Corporation researchers propose management quality indicators: lung cancer diagnosis within 2 months of an abnormal radiologic study and treatment within 6 weeks of diagnosis. 4 The Swedish Lung Cancer Study 5 and the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control 6 both recommended a standard of about 30 days—half the time recommended by the RAND Corporation.

Bukhari and colleagues at the Dayton US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center (VAMC) conducted a quality improvement study that examined lung cancer diagnosis and management.7 They found the time (SD) from abnormal chest imaging to diagnosis was 35.5 (31.6) days. Of those veterans who received a lung cancer diagnosis, 89.2% had the diagnosis made within the 60 days recommended by the RAND Corporation. Although these results surpass those of the LCSDP, they can be exceeded.

Beyond the potential emotional distress of awaiting the final diagnosis of a lung lesion, a delay in diagnosis and treatment may adversely affect outcomes. LDCT screening has been shown to reduce mortality, which implies a link between survival and time to intervention. There is no published evidence that time to diagnosis in advanced stage lung cancer affects outcome. The National Cancer Database (NCDB) contains informtion on about 70% of the cancers diagnosed each year in the US.8 An analysis of 4984 patients with stage IA squamous cell lung cancer undergoing lobectomy from NCDB showed that earlier surgery was associated with an absolute decrease in 5-year mortality of 5% to 8%. 9 Hence, at least in early-stage disease, reduced time from initial suspect imaging to definitive treatment may improve survival.

A system that coordinates the requisite diagnostic steps and avoids delays should provide a significant improvement in patient care. The results of such an approach that utilized nurse navigators has been previously published. 10 Here, we present the results of a dedicated VA referral clinic with priority access to pulmonary consultation and procedures in place that are designed to expedite the diagnosis of potential lung cancer.

Methods

The John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital (JLMMVH) in Little Rock, Arkansas institutional review board approved this study, which was performed in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. Requirement for informed consent was waived, and patient confidentiality was maintained throughout.

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