Guidance for Practicing Primary Care

Prostate cancer screening guidelines: To PSA or not to PSA


In the United States this year, approximately 288,300 men will be newly diagnosed with prostate cancer and about 34,700 men will die from this disease. It is the second leading cause of cancer in men, and one out of every eight men will be diagnosed with this cancer at some point in their lives.

Dr. Linda Girgis practices family medicine in South River, N.J., and is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J.

Dr. Linda Girgis

As primary care physicians, a large part of our role is to prevent or detect cancers early. Patients look to us for this guidance. However, prostate cancer screening has long been a controversial issue. Earlier this year, the American Urological Association along with the Society of Urologic Oncology published updated guidelines.

Clear recommendations that come from this set of guidelines that are relevant to primary care physicians include:

  • using PSA as the screening test of choice.
  • repeating PSA in patients with newly elevated results before moving on to other test.
  • offering PSA screening every 2-4 years in patients aged 50-69 years.
  • offering baseline screening in those between 45-50 years of age.

In high-risk patients, screening can be initiated at 40-45 years of age. All of these recommendations come with the caveat that we give the patient all the pros and cons and leave it up to their “values and preferences.”

The guidelines make recommendations regarding PSA screening and biopsy standards. These guidelines are very specific in their recommendations; however, the question about whether to do PSA screening in the first place is left open to debate. While shared decision-making is important with any testing, it is more difficult with prostate cancer screening. Patients need to understand that there are possible adverse events that can result because of an elevated PSA, such as unneeded biopsies that may come with complications.

The authors of this set of guidelines suggest that physicians talk to patients more often about the benefits of the screening than they do about the negative consequences. This assumes that a negative biopsy result is an unnecessary test, which is not a fair assessment. Negative test results can provide useful clinical information. While a PSA result may lead to a biopsy that could have possibly been avoided, we don’t have any better screening tests available. Missing a prostate cancer that could have been detected by PSA screening is also very harmful. Deciding whether to do PSA screening for any given patient then becomes a difficult question.

More research into biomarkers to detect prostate cancer is needed, as suggested by the guideline authors. As primary care doctors, we’re the first ones to order these tests and make decisions regarding the results. While we may not be the ones to do the biopsies, we do need to know when to refer the patients to specialists or when we can just repeat the test.

Population health is often the benchmark used when looking at screening guidelines. But in the primary care setting, we are responsible for individual patients. Applying guidelines that take whole populations into consideration often doesn’t translate well to single patients. We do need to make them responsible for their own health care decisions but, at the same time, we need to offer them some guidance. If the guidelines are clear, this is easy. When they suggest giving patients all the pros and cons and letting them make their own decision, this is hard. Some of them want us to tell them what to do.

Additionally, patients in the primary care setting develop close relationships with their physicians. They are not an elevated PSA test or a negative biopsy result. They have concerns and fears. When they are high risk, the advice is easy. Keeping in mind that prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer in men in the United States, we should have clear screening guidelines, such as we do with mammograms in women. Yes, shared decision-making is important, but we also need to know the answer when our patients ask us whether or not they should have a PSA test done.

Dr. Girgis practices family medicine in South River, N.J., and is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J.

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