Few High-Risk Smokers Screened for Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed

If you are age 55 to 80, you are or were a heavy cigarette smoker, and you haven’t had a lung cancer screening in at least one year, you have a lot of company—but not necessarily good company.

In December 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), a federal panel of medical experts, recommended that high-risk individuals undergo an annual low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening for lung cancer.

You’re high risk if you are in the 55-to-80 age group, have a 30-pack-or-more-a-year smoking history, and currently smoke or quit smoking within the past 15 years. A 30-pack-year history is either one pack a day for 30 years, two packs a day for 15 years, or three packs a day for 10 years.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that, despite its recommendation, a paltry 3.9 percent of high-risk current and former smokers were screened in 2015—or 262,700 people out of 6.8 million eligible smokers—confirming that the USPSTF recommendations have had little impact on screening rates.

ACS researchers compared data from the 2010 and 2015 National Health Interview Studies and found little difference between screening rates during those years (3.3 percent in 2010 to 3.9 percent in 2015), despite the screening’s potential benefits.

The researchers surmised that some clinicians might not be aware of the USPSTF recommendations or that Medicare covers LDCT for those at high risk up to age 77. Limited access to high-quality radiation centers might also account for the low rates.

Bottom line

If you’re a past or present smoker who fits the criteria for screening, talk with your doctor about whether you can benefit from an LDCT scan.

JAMA Oncology, published online 2/2/17