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CT Scans for Lung Cancer Turn Up Few False-Positives: Study

Worries that wider adoption of the screen might lead to unnecessary surgeries are unfounded, experts say

THURSDAY, Oct. 1, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Recently, CT-based screening for lung cancer in long-term smokers has been recommended by experts, and the scans are now covered by Medicare and some private insurers.

But will these scans result in too many false-positive findings, causing patients unnecessary surgeries and trauma?

A new study suggests otherwise. Researchers at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., tracked outcomes for almost 1,700 patients. The patients underwent low-dose CT screening for lung cancer at the hospital between 2012 and mid-2014.

According to the researchers, false-positive findings were uncommon.

"Surgical intervention for a non-lung cancer diagnosis was rare -- five out of 1,654 patients or 0.3 percent," study co-leader Bryan Walker said in a news release from The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. "That incidence is comparable to the 0.62 percent rate found in the National Lung Screening Trial that helped secure screening coverage in the U.S.," he explained.

The Lahey team said that -- if deemed suspicious -- the results of the CT screen were assessed by a multidisciplinary group of experts, which included surgeons, who gave recommendations as to next steps.

Overall, 25 of the patients screened underwent a surgery because of the results of the CT scan. Of those, 20 were diagnosed as having lung cancer and 18 of them had an early stage of the cancer, where there is still a high chance of a cure, the researchers said.

Prior research has shown that screening with low-dose CT can reduce lung cancer deaths in high-risk patients by as much as 20 percent.

"Lung cancer screening saves lives, and our study serves as a model for how to set up a screening program that is safe and effective for patients," study co-leader Dr. Christina Williamson said in the news release.

Two experts agreed that proper assessment of CT scan findings is key.

Dr. Corrine Liu is a radiologist at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. She said her hospital also has a similar team in place to assess the results of a patient's CT scan with regard to possible lung cancer.

Liu believes that this approach "reduces the need for intervention for benign disease and maximizes the benefits of lung cancer screening."

Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, believes that "lung cancer screening of high-risk patients with low-dose CT can detect cancers that may not be visible on chest X-rays."

According to Horovitz, the new study "shows that early intervention for a lesion seen on CT that is clearly growing -- therefore likely malignant -- does not lead to unnecessary surgeries."

The study is published in the October issue of The Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about lung cancer screening.

SOURCES: Corinne Liu, M.D., radiologist, Winthrop-University Hospital, Mineola, N.Y.; Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, news release, Oct. 1, 2015
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