Healthcare News & Insights

Debate: Do early scans boost lung cancer survival rates?

Some patients at risk for lung cancer are clamoring for CT scans to catch potential problems early — but it’s unclear if  those scans do more harm than good.

The debate has new momentum after a state court ruling in Massachusetts called for Phillip Morris to pay for lung CTs of  smokers, to help them catch cancer sooner and benefit from earlier treatment. (Note: The company won’t actually have to pay unless a federal court affirms the state ruling.) Currently, most at-risk patients are either skipping the procedure because their insurance doesn’t cover it, or they are paying for it out of pocket.

However, some clinicians say those early scans won’t help anyone survive longer, and could actually hurt some people, by subjecting them to more procedures and introducing them to more risk.

The patients cite a 2006 study in which CT scans were correlated with significantly increased lung cancer survival rates for former smokers, people exposed to asbestos and other at-risk patients.

But the study was controversial. Among other criticisms, the original study didn’t use a control group. Other experts have argued that any screening can give the appearance of a longer survival rate, by virtue of catching the disease earlier — but the actual patient outcome may not be any different.

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