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Special Communication
Health Care Reform
December 2014

The Importance of Lung Cancer Screening With Low-Dose Computed Tomography for Medicare Beneficiaries

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Washington, Seattle
JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(12):2016-2018. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.5623

The National Lung Screening Trial has provided convincing evidence of a substantial mortality benefit of lung cancer screening with low-dose computed tomography (CT) for current and former smokers at high risk. The United States Preventive Services Task Force has recommended screening, triggering coverage of low-dose CT by private health insurers under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are currently evaluating coverage of lung cancer screening for Medicare beneficiaries. Since 70% of lung cancer occurs in patients 65 years or older, CMS should cover low-dose CT, thus avoiding the situation of at-risk patients being screened up to age 64 through private insurers and then abruptly ceasing screening at exactly the ages when their risk for developing lung cancer is increasing. Legitimate concerns include false-positive findings that lead to further testing and invasive procedures, overdiagnosis (detection of clinically unimportant cancers), the morbidity and mortality of surgery, and the overall costs of follow-up tests and procedures. These concerns can be mitigated by clear criteria for screening high-risk patients, disciplined management of abnormalities based on algorithms, and high-quality multidisciplinary care. Lung cancer screening with low-dose CT can lead to early diagnosis and cure for thousands of patients each year. Professional societies can help CMS responsibly implement a program that is patient-centered and minimizes unintended harms and costs.

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