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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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University of Oslo Research Study Suggests Most Cancer Screenings Do Not Prolong Lives

Norwegian researchers reviewed large clinical trials of six common cancer screenings, including clinical laboratory tests, but some experts question the findings

Cancer screenings are a critical tool for diagnosis and treatment. But how much do they actually extend the lives of patients? According to researchers at the University of Oslo in Norway, not by much. They recently conducted a review and meta-analysis of 18 long-term clinical trials, five of the six most commonly used types of cancer screening—including two clinical laboratory tests—and found that with few exceptions, the screenings did not significantly extend lifespans.

The 18 long-term clinical trials included in the study were randomized trials that collectively included a total of 2.1 million participants. Median follow-up periods of 10 to 15 years were used to gauge estimated lifetime gain and mortality.

The researchers published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine titled, “Estimated Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.”

“The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that current evidence does not substantiate the claim that common cancer screening tests save lives by extending lifetime, except possibly for colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy,” the researchers wrote in their published paper.

The researchers noted, however, that their analysis does not suggest all screenings should be abandoned. They also acknowledged that some lives are saved by screenings.

“Without screening, these patients may have died of cancer because it would have been detected at a later, incurable stage,” the scientists wrote, MedPage Today reported. “Thus, these patients experience a gain in lifetime.”

Still, some independent experts questioned the validity of the findings.

Gastroenterologist Michael Bretthauer, MD, PhD (above), a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway led the research into cancer screenings. In their JAMA Internal Medicine paper, he and his team wrote, “The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy may extend life by approximately three months; lifetime gain for other screening tests appears to be unlikely or uncertain.” How their findings might affect clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology screening for cancer remains to be seen. (Photo copyright: University of Oslo.)

Pros and Cons of Cancer Screening

The clinical trials, according to MedPage Today and Oncology Nursing News covered the following tests:

  • Mammography screening for breast cancer (two trials).
  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing for prostate cancer (four trials).
  • Computed tomography (CT) screening for lung cancer in smokers and former smokers (three trials).
  • Colonoscopy for colorectal cancer (one trial).
  • Sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer (four trials).
  • Fecal occult blood (FOB) testing for colorectal cancer (four trials).

As reported in these trials, “colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy prolonged lifetime by 110 days, while fecal testing and mammography screening did not prolong life,” the researchers wrote. “An extension of 37 days was noted for prostate cancer screening with prostate-specific antigen testing and 107 days with lung cancer screening using computed tomography, but estimates are uncertain.”

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends certain types of screening tests to detect cancers and pre-cancers before they can spread, thus improving the chances for survival.

The ACS advises screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cervical cancer regardless of whether the individual is considered high risk. Lung cancer screenings are advised for people with a history of smoking. Men who are 45 to 50 or older should discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening with their healthcare providers, the ACS states.

A CNN report about the University of Oslo study noted that the benefits and drawbacks of cancer screening have long been well known to doctors.

“Some positive screening results are false positives, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety as well as additional screening that can be expensive,” CNN reported. “Tests can also give a false negative and thus a false sense of security. Sometimes too, treatment can be unnecessary, resulting in a net harm rather than a net benefit, studies show.”

In their JAMA paper, the University of Oslo researchers wrote, “The critical question is whether the benefits for the few are sufficiently large to warrant the associated harms for many. It is entirely possible that multicancer detection blood tests do save lives and warrant the attendant costs and harms. But we will never know unless we ask,” CNN reported.

Hidden Impact on Cancer Mortality

ACS Chief Scientific Officer William Dahut, MD, told CNN that screenings may have an impact on cancer mortality in ways that might not be apparent from randomized trials. He noted that there’s been a decline in deaths from cervical cancer and prostate cancer since doctors began advising routine testing.

“Cancer screening was never really designed to increase longevity,” Dahut said. “Screenings are really designed to decrease premature deaths from cancer.” For example, “if a person’s life expectancy at birth was 80, a cancer screening may prevent their premature death at 65, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d live to be 90 instead of the predicted 80,” CNN reported.

Dahut told CNN that fully assessing the impact of cancer screenings on life expectancy would require a clinical trial larger than those in the new study, and one that followed patients “for a very long time.”

Others Question the OSLO University Findings

Another expert who questioned the findings was Stephen W. Duffy, MSc, Professor of Cancer Screening at the Queen Mary University of London.

“From its title, one would have expected this paper to be based on analysis of individual lifetime data. However, it is not,” he wrote in a compilation of expert commentary from the UK’s Science Media Center. “The paper’s conclusions are based on arithmetic manipulation of relative rates of all-cause mortality in some of the screening trials. It is therefore difficult to give credence to the claim that screening largely does not extend expected lifetime.”

He also questioned the inclusion of one particular trial in the University of Oslo study—the Canadian National Breast Screening Study—“as there is now public domain evidence of subversion of the randomization in this trial,” he added.

Another expert, Leigh Jackson, PhD, of the University of Exeter in the UK, described the University of Oslo study as “methodologically sound with some limitations which the authors clearly state.”

But he observed that “the focus on 2.1 million individuals is slightly misleading. The study considered many different screening tests and 2.1 million was indeed the total number of included patients, however, no calculation included that many people.”

Jackson also characterized the length of follow-up as a limitation. “This may have limited the amount of data included and also not considering longer follow-up may tend to underestimate the effects of screening,” he said.

This published study—along with the range of credible criticisms offered by other scientists—demonstrates how analysis of huge volumes of data is making it possible to tease out useful new insights. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists can expect to see other examples of researchers assembling large quantities of data across different areas of medicine. This huge pools of data will be analyzed to determine the effectiveness of many medical procedures that have been performed for years with a belief that they are helpful.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Estimated Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials

The Future of Cancer Screening—Guided without Conflicts of Interest

Most Cancer Screenings Don’t Extend Life, Study Finds, but Don’t Cancel That Appointment

Does Cancer Screening Actually Extend Lives?

Cancer Screening May Not Extend Patients’ Life Spans

Opinion: Cancer Screenings, Although Not Perfect, Remain Valuable Expert Reaction to Study Estimating Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests

Studies Show Utilization Management Systems Help Clinical Laboratories Remove Physician Uncertainty Over Availability of Diagnostic Tests and How to Properly Interpret Results

Researchers note medical laboratories uniquely qualified to help doctors optimize lab test utilization, and to educate physicians on testing trends and improvements

Automation and informatics have revolutionized the modern medical laboratory. These same technologies also are powering the next generation of healthcare through precision medicine, genomics, and an increased ability to assess and leverage population health trends. In fact, exciting work is being done to use these technologies to help physicians and clinical laboratory professionals better work together.

When it comes to how physicians order and use medical laboratory tests, changing their long-standing habits can be a lengthy process. By using dedicated systems to define proper lab test usage, track lab orders and patient outcomes, and share data between clinical laboratory and healthcare environments, pathologists, medical laboratory scientists, and physicians could seamlessly access the knowledge needed to improve decision making.

Low-Value versus High-Value Care Ordering

Research published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA Internal Medicine) investigated the order rates and utilization of low-value medical laboratory services and other diagnostic tests associated with headaches, respiratory tract infections, and back pain.

Their findings indicated that physicians in hospital-based practices ordered more “low-value care” than physicians in community-based practices. According to the research, low-value care includes:

The researchers found similar patterns in specialty referrals when comparing hospital-owned community practices and physician-owned practices.

The study authors noted, “Visits with a generalist other than the patient’s primary care provider were associated with greater provision of low-value care, but mainly within hospital-based settings.”

Medical Laboratories Critical to Increasing Care Value/Reimbursements

According to the study, physicians often develop routines and habits when ordering diagnostic testing and when utilizing clinical laboratory services. By taking a proactive role in educating physicians and managing lab test utilization, laboratories could assist physicians in shifting these habits and reduce the number of low-value or outmoded tests ordered.

Avoiding low-value or unwarranted testing:

  • Reduces order load on the laboratory;
  • Improves efficiency for healthcare providers; and
  • Improves the quality of care for patients.

This is particularly critical as value-based care continues to change the way both laboratories and healthcare facilities get reimbursed for services.

In a press release, Janet B. Kreizman, CEO of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) stated, “The changing Medicare payment paradigm creates new opportunities for health systems to advance patient care while more efficiently and effectively utilizing their resources. Laboratory medicine experts are uniquely positioned to ensure this is achieved by working with physicians to devise optimal diagnostic and therapeutic protocols, leading to better health outcomes and reduced costs.”


Graphic above from the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) report, “Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Health Care in America.” (Graphic copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.)

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology (AJCP) noted that among 32,000 primary care physicians surveyed:

  • 7% were uncertain about which diagnostic tests to order;
  • 3% were uncertain on how to interpret results; and
  • Respondents only consulted with pathology or laboratory experts 6% of the time.

Thus, an important opportunity exists for laboratory experts to work with PCPs—both within hospitals and outpatient settings—to further improve understanding of the ever-shifting menu of testing options and how to best utilize available lab services.

Optimizing the Cost and Safety of Care through Cooperation

In “‘Choosing Wisely’ Program Wants to Encourage Better Utilization of Clinical Pathology Laboratory Tests,” Dark Daily reported on a program created by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIMF) and Consumer Reports that sought to identify overused diagnostic procedures and medical laboratory testing.

The program asked nearly 400,000 physicians to name five diagnostic test and procedures related to their specialty that offered questionable value to patients and outcomes. In a Kaiser Health News (KHN) article, Daniel Wolfson, COO at ABIMF, attributed the “Choosing Wisely” campaign to launching a national conversation on unwarranted and low-value care.

The KHN report also noted the impact of “Choosing Wisely” on Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, one of the largest hospitals in the nation. Harry Sax, MD, Executive Vice Chairman for Surgery at Cedars-Sinai explained how the hospital avoided $6-million in spending in 2013 alone by implementing program recommendations, and by being more selective regarding tests and procedures utilized at the hospital.

Using Lab Utilization Management Technology to Improve Testing Value

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology (AJCP) highlights how combining expert laboratory advice with a dedicated electronic laboratory utilization management system might shape the future of testing and help educate healthcare providers on the diagnostic options available to them.

The authors of the AJCP study compared testing costs at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis before and after implementing an electronic laboratory utilization management system. They attributed six-figure savings to a reduction in high-volume large-panel testing and redundant tests. Savings were realized without increasing length-of-stay or adversely effecting patient care.

Dark Daily recently reported on the value to clinical laboratories of implementing utilization management systems in “Biggest Opportunity for Clinical Laboratory Industry is Utilization Management of Lab Tests, But Only If It Is Done Well.”

As big data continues to shape the future of healthcare, and clinical laboratories continue to implement lean laboratory routines to maintain growth, these systems could offer increased opportunities to help physicians become better at ordering the right test at the right time for the right patient, while helping the clinical laboratories performing these tests to further trim waste, increase the value of care, increase reimbursement, and improve outcomes for patients.

—Jon Stone


Related Information:

Hospital-based Physicians Provide More Unnecessary Services

Association of Primary Care Practice Location and Ownership with the Provision of Low-value Care in the United States

Lab Experts Help Providers Reduce Low-value Resource Use, Costs

Laboratory Medicine Experts, Physicians Must Team up to Improve Use of Lab Tests, Advance Patient Care, and Cut Healthcare Costs

Primary Care Physicians and the Laboratory: Now and the Future

Reduction in Unnecessary Clinical Laboratory Testing Through Utilization Management at a Us Government Veterans Affairs Hospital

Putting a Lid on Waste: Needless Medical Tests Not Only Cost $200B—They Can Do Harm

“Choosing Wisely” Program Wants to Encourage Better Utilization of Clinical Pathology Laboratory Tests

Physicians and Pathologists at Atrius Health Collaborate to Reduce Unnecessary Clinical Laboratory Test Orders and End up Saving $1 Million Annually

As Medical Laboratory Test Utilization Grows, Health Insurers Develop Programs to Manage Rising Costs

Biggest Opportunity for Clinical Laboratory Industry is Utilization Management of Lab Tests, But Only If It Is Done Well

Harvard Researchers Find that 83% of Radiologists Fail to See Gorilla in the Midst—of a Lung Scan!

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers should be aware of the possibility of ‘inattentional blindness’ as a potential cause for diagnostic and laboratory error

Pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals who regularly analyze images will be interested in the findings of a research study designed to assess how the phenomenon called “inattentional blindness” among radiologists could cause them to possibly miss things hiding in plain sight.

‘Inattentional Blindness’ Occurs Even Among Highly-trained Radiologists

In a recent study, psychological scientists from Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that 83% of radiologists didn’t notice an image of a gorilla embedded in a computed tomography (CT) lung scan. (more…)

Pathology Study Team Recommends Replacing Traditional Autopsies with Non-invasive, Imaging-based Alternative for the United Kingdom

Evolving imaging technology could begin to replace some traditional autopsy methodologies and encourage an increase in the number of autopsies performed

New imaging technology may give pathologists in the United Kingdom a new way to perform non-invasive autopsies. It is another example of how long-standing clinical practices can be transformed by the capabilities of newly developed technologies.

Leading experts within the field of post-mortem cross-sectional imaging in Britain have recommended that England’s National Health Service (NHS) introduce alternative techniques for performing non-invasive autopsies. A review of current procedures in the NHS system showed that alternative autopsy methodologies offer important advantages. In some circumstances, the non-invasive approach could replace traditional autopsy methods. (more…)

Mobile Stroke Unit (MSU) Brings the Laboratory to the Patient at the Point of Care

Clinical laboratories will increasingly provide emergency diagnostic services through mobile-unit near-patient testing

In an innovation designed to bring the laboratory to the patient, use of a mobile stroke unit (MSU) shortened the time to treatment decision for acute stroke patients. MSUs equipped with imaging systems and medical laboratory point-of-care testing proved capable of providing early diagnosis and intervention.

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will immediately recognize the implications of these findings. This study demonstrates how clinicians are taking steps to move clinical laboratory testing out of the traditional central/core laboratory and bring it closer to the patient specifically to reduce the time-to-answer for certain medical conditions, like acute stroke.

One conclusion from this clinical study is that use of a mobile stroke unit offers a potential solution to the medical problem of stroke patients arriving at the hospital too late for treatment, wrote researchers in a study published in the medical journal The Lancet.