The American College of Physicians (ACP) has issued advice for screening average-risk adults without symptoms for five common cancers: breast, colorectal, ovarian, prostate, and cervical. This paper was published in Annals of Internal Medicine (2015; doi:10.7326/M14-2326) along with a companion piece (doi:10.7326/M14-2327) that outlined a framework for thinking about the value of varying intensities of cancer screening.

“ACP wants smarter screening by informing people about the benefits and harms of screening and encouraging them to get screened at the right time, at the right interval, with the right test,” said Wayne J. Riley, MD, president of ACP. “Many people have a lack of understanding about the trade-offs of screening. Study after study has consistently shown that patients and many physicians overestimate the benefits and are unaware of and/or downplay the potential harms of cancer screening.”

ACP reviewed clinical guidelines and evidence synthesis issued by the US Preventive Services Task Force, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Gastroenterological Association, the American Urological Association, and ACP.

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“We found much common agreement on high-value care screening among different organizations,” said Tanveer Mir, MD, chair of the ACP Board of Regents and a member of the ACP High-Value Care Task Force, which developed the papers. “Our advice puts that agreement together in one convenient place for physicians and patients. Many major physician organizations are seeking to implement strategies that best optimize the known benefits and harms of cancer screenings.”

Various screening strategies exist for each of the cancers highlighted in the paper. High intensity screening strategies (screening broader populations, more frequently, and/or with more sensitive screening tests) are not necessarily high-value care. ACP defines high-value care as the delivery of services providing benefits that make their harms and costs worthwhile. ACP encourages physicians to implement a health care strategy that focuses on tests or treatments that improve health, avoid harms, and eliminate wasteful practices.

Screening average-risk adults age 50 to 75 years for colorectal cancer with high sensitivity fecal occult blood testing every year is an example of high-value care. Screening women without a cervix for cervical cancer is an example of low-value care.

“The largest harm that can result from overly intense screening is over-diagnosis and overtreatment,” Riley said. “The more sensitive the test we use or lower the threshold we establish for an abnormality the more abnormalities we find, many of which will never lead to health problems. But because doctors cannot know which of these would or would not cause problems, we tend to treat them. Treatment for cell and tissue abnormalities that will likely not cause health problems cannot provide benefits.”

Prostate cancer, for example, detected with the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test never becomes clinically significant in a patient’s lifetime in a considerable proportion of men. Screening using the PSA test in average risk men younger than 50 years or older than 69 years can open the door to more testing and treatment that might actually be harmful.