A new study claims that medical screening for diseases like breast and cervical cancer has saved lives and generated value of at least $7.5T (yes, trillion) over the last 25 years. The findings, published in BMC Health Services Research, are a stunning rebuke to critics of screening exams.
While the vast majority of doctors and public health officials support evidence-based screening, a vocal minority of skeptics continues to raise questions about screening’s efficacy. These critics emphasize the “harms” of screening, such as overdiagnosis and patient anxiety – an accusation often levied against breast screening.
Screening’s critics also target the downstream costs of medical tests intended to confirm suspicious findings. They argue that a single screen-detected finding can lead to a cascade of additional healthcare spending that drives up medical costs.
But the new study offers a counter-argument, putting a dollar figure on how much screening exams have saved by detecting disease earlier, when it can be treated more effectively.
The research focused on the four main cancer screening tests – breast, cervical, colon, and lung cancer – analyzing the impact of preventive screening on life-years saved and its economic impact from 1996 to 2020, finding …
- Americans enjoyed at least 12M more years of life thanks to cancer screening
- The economic value of these life-years added up to at least $7.5T
- If everyone who qualified for screening exams got them, it would save at least another 3.3M life-years and $1.7T in economic impact
- Cervical cancer screening had by far the biggest economic impact ($5.2T-$5.7T), followed by breast ($0.8T-$1.9T), colorectal ($0.4T-$1T), and finally lung ($40B).
Lung cancer’s paltry value was due to a small eligible population and low screening adherence rates. This finding is underscored by a new article in STAT that ponders why CT lung cancer screening rates are so low, with one observer calling it the “redheaded stepchild” of screening tests.
Screening skeptics have been taking it on the chin lately (witness the USPSTF’s U-turn on mammography for younger women) and the new findings will be another blow. We may continue to see a dribble of papers on the “harms” of overdiagnosis, but the momentum is definitely shifting in screening’s favor – to the benefit of patients.