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Do Cancer Centers Push Too Many Tests?

The New York Times

July 17, 2022

Paula Span

Do Cancer Centers Push Too Many Tests?

Studies found that centers provided incomplete or unbalanced information, which could lead to unnecessary screenings and health complications in older adults.

Say a postcard arrives in the mail, a reminder to make an appointment for a mammogram. Or a primary care doctor orders a PSA test to screen a man for prostate cancer, or tells him that because of his years of smoking, he should be screened for lung cancer.

These patients, trying to be informed customers, may look online for a cancer center to learn more about screening, when it is recommended and for whom.

It might not be the best move. Medical societies and the independent U.S. Preventive Services Task Force publish guidelines about who should be screened for lung, prostate and breast cancers and how frequently, among many other prevention recommendations. But websites for cancer centers often diverge from those recommendations, according to three studies published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers found that some sites discussed the benefits of screening but said little about the harms and risks. Some offered recommendations about the age at which to start screening but glossed over when to stop — an important piece of information for older adults.

“If we acknowledge that these websites are important sources of information, based on screening according to the guidelines we have room for improvement,” said Dr. Behfar Ehdaie, a urologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and an author of the study on prostate cancer screening recommendations. Screening refers to tests for patients with no symptoms or evidence of disease, including prostate-specific antigen tests, mammograms, colonoscopies and CT scans.

The researchers analyzed more than 600 cancer center websites that provided recommendations for prostate screening, and found that more than one-quarter recommended that all men be screened. More than three-quarters did not specify an age at which to stop routine testing.

Yet guidelines from both the Preventive Services Task Force and the American Urological Association state that men over 70 should not be routinely screened, because, according to the Task Force guidelines, “the potential benefits do not outweigh the expected harms.”

For men aged 55 to 69, both groups urge individual decisions after a discussion with a clinician about ben