Annual Chest X-Rays Don’t Help Smokers Beat Lung Cancer

A new study might add to the perception that U.S. medical care is uncontrollably expensive thanks in part to unnecessary tests. “Screening by Chest Radiograph and Lung Cancer Mortality” concludes that people who have an annual chest X-ray do not have a significantly lower mortality rate than people who don’t.

The study, whose lung data are part of a larger investigation into cancers of the prostate, colon/rectum and ovaries, examined people who were given either annual chest X-rays (chest radiography) or standard medical care without screening. In the 13 years’ of the study, 1,696 lung cancers were detected in chest radiograph group and 1,620 lung cancers in the control group. The radiograph group reported 1,213 lung cancer deaths, and 1,230 in the control group.

The results weren’t really a surprise; researchers said the study confirmed expectations rather than setting new ones.

Some healthy patients believe that safeguarding their good fortune means having any screening that can yield information. Often their physicians accommodate them out of an abundance of caution, a desire to please the customer or a fear (usually irrational) of being sued if they are perceived to have practiced poor medicine.

But as with recent guidelines announced by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) about Pap tests, mammograms and prostate-specific antigen tests, sometimes a test, especially for generally healthy people, serves little purpose other than addressing professional insecurity and reducing one’s bank account. And in the task force cases, it can cause harmful side effects.

A smoker or someone with a family history of lung cancer might not qualify as someone who can ignore advice to get screened. But now, the best practice for people at risk for lung disorders might not be a chest X-ray. The recent National Lung Screening Trial concluded that early detection of lung cancer from a spiral CT scan reduced the risk of mortality.

A spiral CT uses X-rays to generate multiple images of the entire chest; a standard chest X-ray generates a single image of the entire chest in which parts of the anatomy overlie one another.

The National Cancer Institute study involved current and former smokers, and compared a CT scan group with a chest X-ray group, not people with no known lung problems or those who hadn’t been screened at all. Still, the best way to diagnose lung cancer doesn’t seem to be with a chest X-ray, and unless you’re having a respiratory issue, you don’t need one as part of your annual physical exam.

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