Older adults are being “overscreened” for cancer, say researchers who discovered that many patients reported undergoing screening for cancer even though they were older than the upper age limit recommended.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends an upper age limit on cancer screening that varies by cancer type – 75 years old for colorectal cancer, 74 for breast cancer, and 65 for cervical cancer.
The study found that 59.3% of men and 56.2% of women being screening for colorectal cancer were above that cut-off age, as were 45.8% of women being screened for cervical cancer and 74.1% of women being screened for breast cancer.
Overscreening was particularly high for women living in metropolitan areas.
The finding is of concern, say the researchers, because “continuing to screen patients who are older and/or who have limited life expectancy may cause more harms than benefits.”
“The development of successful interventions to address this problem are thus essential,” they write.
The study was published online July 27 in JAMA Network Open.
Clinicians, patients, and health care systems can be changed – and should be changed – to minimize overscreening,” said lead author Jennifer L. Moss, PhD, assistant professor of family and community medicine and public health sciences at Penn State University, Hershey.
“It will probably take many changes to meaningfully decrease overscreening,” she told Medscape Medical News.
One change that would help is if health insurance companies stopped reimbursing providers for screening after the recommended upper age limit, she continued. “Another change is if providers had evidence-based tools to guide conversations about stopping screening, given an individual patient’s demographics, health status, and risks and benefits of the screening test.”
Approached for comment on the study, Nancy Schoenborn, MD, MHS, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, noted that the finding of high overscreening is not surprising and is consistent with prior works that found similar results.
“One value of this paper is that the timing of the study is more recent and confirms that the issue of overscreening is one that is still ongoing,” she told Medscape Medical News. Schoenborn was not associated with the study.
As for what physicians should do about the findings in this study, Schoenborn suggested the first step is to simply recognize that overscreening is likely a problem and “to reflect if there are instances in one’s own practice where overscreening may occur.”
In her own work, Schoenborn continued, “I was recently surprised that a substantial minority of clinicians actually do not believe overscreening to be a problem in older adults, and they have a number of concerns about how overscreening is defined and about unintended consequences that can occur from efforts to reduce overscreening.”
She added that there are a number of reasons why overscreening occurs. These include guideline inconsistencies, inertia, patient request, clinician knowledge gaps, and discomfort with discussing stopping. “A lot of work is ongoing to address each of these issues, but I think the first step would be the clinician recognizing and agreeing that this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” she said.