Results from a pilot study, published online July 13 in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, show that the scheme is both practical and financially sustainable.
During a 10-month test run, the mobile unit screened 548 individuals at 104 sites. Five lung cancers (four of which were early stage) and a type B thymoma were discovered, and all of these individuals went on to have treatment.
Significant pulmonary findings were also discovered in 52 individuals, who were advised to undergo further testing, as well as significant nonpulmonary findings in 152 individuals (of whom 13 required further testing, but none went on to have treatment). These findings included severe coronary disease and thyroid abnormalities.
The bus reached the estimated financial break-even point of 428 scans, but future economic viability of such a program will likely rely on additional revenue from the treatment of patients with incidental findings from low-dose CT screens, acknowledged the authors, led by James R. Headrick Jr, MD, MBA, from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga.
The real value of the Breathe Easy program, however, comes from bringing both patient education and lung cancer screening services to a high-risk population who might otherwise be overlooked, Headrick said in an interview with Medscape Medical News.
“We were all excited when lung screening was approved, and we got the recommendation from the United States Preventive Services Task Force [USPSTF], and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services signed off on it, and we sat in our offices and clinics and hospitals — and nobody showed up. We were thinking, ‘Wow, we have this simple test, the easiest screening tool in the world, and nobody’s coming,’ “ he said.
“There was certainly an educational issue that needed to be solved,” he continued, “but we were also dealing with a population that had been told that if they smoked and didn’t live life well, there was a 100% chance they were going to get lung cancer and die,” he said.
The individuals screened in the program were very heavy smokers.
The mean pack-years of smoking was 41 — 11 pack-years higher than the minimum recommended under current lung cancer screening guidelines, and 21 pack-years higher than that recently recommended under proposed low-dose CT screening guidelines by the USPSTF.
Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, who was not involved in the study, told Medscape Medical News any initiative that can expand lung cancer screening is welcome, particularly when a program may be self-sustaining.
“The interesting part of this article included the downstream revenue to help make something like this viable,” Rizzo said. “Just doing the scans is probably not going to cover the cost of the mobile unit itself, but if you take into account that other things are being found in addition to lung cancer, such as coronary abnormalities, then it becomes more cost-effective, especially if those patients are then treated at the site where the mobile unit is coming from,” he said.