Many Older Adults 'Overscreened' for Cancer

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

August 03, 2020

Older adults are being "overscreened" for cancer, say researchers who discovered that many report undergoing screening for cancer even though they were older than the upper age limit recommended.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF) 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 success interventions to address this problem are thus essential," they write.

The study was published online July 27 in JAMA Network Open.

Clinicians, patients, and healthcare 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 College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

"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 School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, 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."

The first step would be the clinician recognizing and agreeing that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Dr Nancy Schoenborn

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.

Unnecessary Screening

The authors note that the prevalence estimates for overscreening have not been reported on a national level, and it is also unclear how overscreening may vary among subgroups.

"The reason I focused on colorectal, cervical, and breast cancers is because USPSTF has very clear, age-based recommendations for these cancers in terms of who should and should not get screened routinely," explained Moss. "This was important because it allowed me and my coauthors to clearly say, based on age alone, this person probably was screened unnecessarily, and this person was not."

She noted that that the age-based recommendations for routine screening are based on very large clinical trials to examine the effectiveness of the screening tool. "The recommendations for lung and prostate cancer screening are not so clear cut, and we would not be able to tell, based only on the available survey data, if someone was overscreened," she said.

For their study, the team used data from the 2018 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), administered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overscreening was assessed in a cohort of 20,937 men and 34,244 women for colorectal cancer, 82,811 women for cervical cancer, and 38,356 women for breast cancer. Most the participants lived in a metropolitan area (about 80%) and were White (about 80%).

Being overscreened was also more common in metropolitan vs nonmetropolitan areas for colorectal cancer in women (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.23), cervical cancer (aOR, 1.20) and breast cancer (aOR, 1.36).

Overscreening for cervical and breast cancers was also associated with having a usual source of care, good/very good/excellent self-reported health, education beyond a high school diploma, and being married or living as married.

The study was carried out in 2018, and the situation is likely to have changed over recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have already seen dramatic reductions in routine cancer screening among age-eligible adults, so part of this problem of overscreening among older adults will likely diminish," said Moss. "State and national cancer surveillance systems will continue to monitor trends in cancer screening, including overscreening, cancer incidence, and cancer mortality."

Johns Hopkins' Schoenborn said one finding of particular interest was that colorectal cancer overscreening rate was higher in those older than 80 and in those with higher mortality risk. "It makes me wonder if this is due to the increasing use of non-invasive colorectal cancer screening modalities, such as the fecal immunochemical test FIT or Cologuard," Schoenborn commented. "It would be important for clinicians to consider downstream effects even when the initial test is low risk, such as if the stool test screens positive, would the patient still need a colonoscopy and is that something the patient can undergo and wants to undergo?"

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society. Moss, study coauthors, and Schoenborn have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online July 27, 2020. Full text

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