A blood test that helps screen for prostate cancer is still common, but conversations between patients and doctors about the pros and cons of the screening are not.
Only 30 percent of men in a large national survey reported having a balanced discussion about the advantages and disadvantages with their health care provider.
Further, the conversations are even less likely since the US Preventive Services Task Force issued a recommendation against performing prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing in 2012.
“That only about a third of patients reported having a discussion of advantages and disadvantages is an alarming statistic,” says study lead author George Turini III, clinical instructor in medical science at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
As reported in the journal Urology, out of a sample of 111,241 men who responded to the national Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2014, 29.5 percent reported discussing both advantages and disadvantages, 33.9 percent discussed neither, 35.7 percent reported discussing only advantages of PSA, and 0.8 percent reported discussing only disadvantages.
“The concept of ‘shared decision-making’ for prostate cancer screening is not occurring in the community,” says coauthor Joseph Renzulli, associate professor of surgery and a urologist at the Minimally Invasive Urology Institute at Miriam Hospital.
In data from 2012, before the task force made its recommendation against the test, out of 105,812 men who responded to the survey, 30.1 percent discussed both, 30.5 percent discussed neither, 38.5 percent discussed only advantages, and 0.8 percent discussed only disadvantages.
Meanwhile, 63.0 percent of the men in 2012 had PSA tests, as did 62.4 percent of the men in 2014.
In each year, thousands of men had the test without having a discussion of how it could either benefit them, for instance via early detection of cancer, or lead to unnecessary adversity, such as a side effects from biopsy or unneeded treatment. They either got no information or only one side of the story.
In addition, men who have low incomes, did not finish high school, lack insurance, or are Hispanic were significantly less likely than men overall to report hearing about the pros and cons of screening via the PSA test.
“The most vulnerable men are getting less counseling,” says coauthor Annie Gjelsvik, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health.
The PSA test reveals blood levels of a protein naturally secreted by the prostate. Levels could become elevated for a number of reasons including the normal enlargement of the prostate as men age, Turini says. But cancer could also elevate them.
When the task force in 2012 discouraged PSA testing, it was because there are risks to what follows from screening. If cancer is suspected, only a biopsy can confirm it and that could cause problems such as infection, bleeding, or discomfort.
Beyond those concerns, if prostate cancer is confirmed, the risks inherent in treatment options such as surgery, radiation, or hormonal alteration, can be “truly life-altering,” he says.
“In some cases, a low volume of less aggressive prostate cancer may not necessitate treatment, but even in those cases where a ‘treatment’ is not performed in favor of active surveillance, the emotional distress of a cancer diagnosis shouldn’t be underestimated,” Turini says.
But whenever a cancer does present a threat to health, there are also clear advantages to catching it early.
Therefore many urologists still believe that doctors and their patients should weigh these pros and cons of screening. For that reason, the American Urologic Association and the American Cancer Society advocate thorough discussion and decision-making between doctors and patients.
The findings could be explained by factors other than the US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation, the authors say, but they “believe our findings may be indicative of a shift in practice patterns away from detailed pre-screening discussions among health care providers who have implemented the [USPSTF] recommendation into their care giving.