Debating the clinical trial upending colonoscopy practices


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE: Hello, and thank you for joining us today for what promises to be a lively discussion about screening for colon cancer.

My name is Perry Wilson. I’m an associate professor of medicine and director of the Clinical and Translational Research Accelerator at the Yale School of Medicine. My new book, “How Medicine Works and When It Doesn’t: Learning Who to Trust to Get and Stay Healthy,” is available for pre-order now anywhere that books are sold.

I’m joined by two wonderful experts. Dr. David Johnson is a professor of medicine and the chief of gastroenterology at the Eastern Virginia School of Medicine. He is the past president of the American College of Gastroenterology. And I’m very encouraged to see that he’s won a Distinguished Educator Award for his efforts in gastroenterology.

I’m also joined by Dr Kenny Lin. He’s a frequent contributor to Medscape and WebMD. He’s a family physician and public health consultant from Lancaster, Pa., and deputy editor of the American Family Physician journal. He’s also a teacher of residents and students at Lancaster General Health and the Penn Medicine Family Medicine Residency program.

So, we have two great educators with us today to hopefully help teach us something about colon cancer and colon cancer screening. Thank you for joining me today.

David A. Johnson, MD: Thanks for having us.

Kenneth W. Lin, MD, MPH: Good to be here.

Dr. Wilson: Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer mortality in the United States. A little over 50,000 people die every year in the United States due to colon cancer.

A month ago, I would have said that there was a pretty broad consensus, at least from my perspective, that people should be getting colonoscopies. That’s certainly what we tell our patients.

Then a paper came out in the New England Journal of Medicine, a very prestigious journal, that has caused a lot of consternation online and led to my receiving a lot questions from patients and their family members. Today, I’d like to talk about this randomized trial of screening colonoscopy for colon cancer, and why it has caused so much – perhaps – confusion, calls for change, and concern out there.

Dr Johnson, can you give us a brief overview of what this trial was about?

Dr. Johnson: This was a randomized trial looking at screening colonoscopy versus no screening test whatsoever. They looked at the outcomes of prevention of cancer and the prevention of colon cancer–related death.

The short answer was that it was disappointing as it relates to colonoscopy. The study looked at patients from four European countries, with data from three of them (Norway, Poland, and Sweden) ultimately analyzed in this report in NEJM. It got a lot of attention because it surprised a lot of people by saying maybe colonoscopy wasn’t quite as good as we thought it was.

They tried to correct that by only looking at the numbers of patients who got their colonoscopy screening, which still showed value, but it was less than that we’ve seen before. There’s lots of reasons for that, which we’ll discuss shortly.


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