by Karen Weintraub
Lung cancer screening has been proven to save lives.
But according to a new study, only 5.8% of people eligible for a free, low-dose CT scan actually get screened for lung cancer—far below levels seen for colorectal, breast and cervical cancer screens.
Debra Ritzwoller knows the challenges firsthand..
Ritzwoller is a senior investigator in economics and cancer research with the Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research. Part of her job via a grant from the National Cancer Institute is to study and promote the use of lung cancer screening among Kaiser’s patients and other health systems. But in five years of trying, she hasn’t managed to get a high-risk close relative screened for the disease.
The relative’s doctor insisted he wasn’t at elevated risk, because he’d quit smoking a decade earlier. Ritzwoller ended up talking to her family member while at the doctor’s and explaining that his age, heavy smoking history, plus having a family member with the disease did put him at high risk. The doctor agreed and ordered the screening exam.
When she last spoke with the family member, he still hadn’t been screened, because he didn’t know how to schedule the screen.
“There’s a lot of folks out there who we’re not reaching,” Ritzwoller said.
Lung cancer remains the deadliest cancer in the United States, claiming an estimated 130,000 lives this year. About 60% are caught after the tumor has spread beyond the lung and is past the point of being cured, said Zach Jump, National Senior Research Director for Epidemiology and Statistics with the American Lung Association, who helped lead the new study.
Still, Jump said he’s seen the five-year survival rate from lung cancer climb from about 15% when he started working for the lung association, to more than 25% today. Catching tumors early offers the possibility of even more lives saved, he said. Studies show screening leads to at least a 20% reduction in death from lung cancer.
Screening, which involves a quick CT scan, fully clothed with no advance preparation, has only been recommended by the federal government since 2014. In March 2021, criteria were modified to nearly double the number of people eligible for the free scan.
Now, anyone can get the free screen if they are between ages 50 to 80, currently smoke or quit within the past 15 years, and have a 20 pack-year smoking history, meaning they smoked at least 20 cigarettes a day for 20 years or 10 cigarettes daily for 40 years. (Visit the Focus On Your Lungs pack-year calculator here.)
That’s a more complicated list of criteria than for other cancer screens, which might be one reason people have been slow to adopt lung cancer screening,
Ritzwoller’s family members’ medical chart didn’t indicate how much he had smoked, which is likely why his doctor initially dismissed the idea of screening. Many doctors know only whether their patients are current smokers, not their smoking history.
“There’s a knowledge gap for both the patients and for the providers,” Ritzwoller said.
Then, as with her family member, many people don’t know what to do if they do qualify. The screens are required to be provided at no cost to patients under the Affordable Care Act. People who are part of a program, as at Kaiser, where they’re helped through the process and reminded annually, are more likely to get screened, her data shows.
Lung cancer screening can vary substantially by doctor and treatment facility, suggesting that some are better than others at prioritizing the screens.
In a recent study of the Veterans Health Administration from 2013 to 2021, researchers found that the facility where a patient received care accounted for 36% of the variation in screening rates and the doctor accounted for 19% of the difference—more than personal characteristics of the veteran.