Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"It is time to stop this [PSA] screening nonsense"

In an editorial in this month's issue of the Journal of Family Practice, Northeast Ohio Medical University dean and family physician Jeff Susman, MD joins the rising chorus of voices urging clinicians to stop offering the PSA test to screen for prostate cancer. Dr. Susman writes:

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, until we have fundamentally changed strategies for targeted case finding or early intervention (think genomic and proteomic markers), it is time to stop this screening nonsense. The facts speak for themselves: A trial of 182,000 patients finds in a post hoc analysis of a very narrow population that death can be averted in one of 723 individuals who are screened. What about the complications associated with diagnosis, work-up, and treatment?
It is time for urologists and primary care physicians to tell patients that PSA screening is unlikely to benefit them. Some of you will suggest that we counsel patients about PSA testing to facilitate informed decision-making. But do we advise patients to play the lottery or try futile therapies?

Notably, mortality results from one of the two "definitive" randomized studies of treatment versus watchful waiting for PSA-detected prostate cancer, the Prostate Cancer Intervention Versus Observation Trial (PIVOT), were presented in abstract form at the annual meeting of the American Urological Association last month. In brief, PIVOT found no overall survival benefit in men who underwent surgery (radical prostatectomy) compared to men who did not. The only men whom the study suggested might benefit from surgery were those with a PSA of greater than 10 - in other words, those men who would be least likely to be identified via screening alone.

As we continue to wait for the long-delayed verdict of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force on PSA screening, public opinion may finally be turning against the test, at least in older men with no realistic possibility of benefit. When primary care blogger Kevin Pho, MD recently proposed on the New York Times's Room for Debate that Medicare stop paying for prostate screenings for men over 75, the majority of responses were favorable - a big difference from the way the USPSTF's recommendation against screening in this age group was originally received back in 2008.

Thank you, Dr. Susman, for taking a public stand on PSA screening that is consistent with the scientific evidence and most likely to benefit patients. Hopefully, it will soon become obvious to all that discouraging the misuse of this test is not "going out on a limb," but rather, should be the standard of care.


  1. Good for you Jeff and Kenny.
    It would be nice to discover if treatment for prostate cancer, however detected, actually made a difference!

  2. Hey Kenny, now comes the hard part, convincing our colleagues to use the evidence available and change their deep seated practices. Similar to changing the process for the widespread use of HRT, and the election voting style of performing pap smears - early and often. Change is always on the horizon.
    Darlene Lawrence MD @angeldoc

  3. As a 57 year old male physician I've been reading your posts. I have had my last PSA screening test myself. I still have trouble convincing my patients to stop getting PSA screening, even when they are old, but I've stopped encouraging them. I hope the USPSTF gets on the ball and gives us a recommendation we can give to our patients.