New Guidelines Lower Recommended Age For Lung Screenings
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has released updated final recommendations for computed tomography (CT) lung cancer screenings, lowering the starting age from 55 to 50, and adjusting smoking history from 30 pack-years to 20 pack-years.
The panel’s previous recommendation made in 2013, recommended screenings between the ages of 55 and 80, and for individuals who have smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
Chattanooga thoracic surgeon Dr.
Rob Headrick believes the benefits of detecting lung cancer as early as possible outweigh the risks. “Every three minutes, someone in the U.S. dies of lung cancer. These new recommendations from the USPSTF are helpful because they increase the eligible population who can get screened, thus increasing the chances of catching lung cancer earlier. The earlier we are able to catch this type of cancer, the better. It is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Lung cancer is the nation’s leading cause of cancer death, with an estimated 137,720 people dying of the disease in 2020. In addition, an estimated 228,820 people were diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. in 2020. Because of this, Dr. Headrick wanted to find a way to make screenings more accessible and less daunting to patients.
Dr. Headrick and his colleagues assembled a team and took on the task of designing and building a unique lung screening program that included a built-from-scratch bus featuring independent power, climate control, patient comfort, a portable CT scanner, and drivability. The project became known as “Breathe Easy”.
“The Breathe Easy mobile lung bus brings the imaging center to the patient. This can be at a place of employment, a church or a restaurant parking lot,” said Dr. Headrick. “It also makes the process quick, simple and safe. Many patients are afraid to go to the hospital, especially right now, but they are very willing to go to the bus. There is no waiting room filled with people, nor is a lot of time required. Screening exams have to be made simple or people will not get them done. We believe that if we take the technology to the people, especially those most at risk, lives will be saved.”
The Breathe Easy mobile has now been in operation for more than three years, with the latest version of the bus arriving this month. In March 2020, the COVID crisis began to impact lung cancer care, causing many primary care practices and hospital-based lung screening programs to close. The Breathe Easy mobile, however, continued to perform lung screenings in rural Tennessee and added diagnostic scans for patients in the nodule surveillance program. Finding lung cancer early is the key to survival. The Breathe Easy program has been successful in early detection, as 77 percent of the lung cancers found were in an early stage.
“This bus has provided us with the opportunity to help advance lung cancer screening,” said Dr. Headrick. “It’s only through conversations and efforts such as the Breathe Easy program that we are going to erase the stigma surrounding lung cancer and change the survival rates.”
The USPSTF panel is an independent group of medical specialists whose advice helps determine federal policy. The federal Medicare program has agreed with the recommendations and private insurers will be required to include free CT screenings under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The task force estimates about 15 million Americans should get CT scanning under its updated recommendation, from about eight million previously.