Jury Still Out On CT Scans For Lungs

The CT scan holds the promise of detecting lung cancer early, when it can be surgically removed and possibly cured, reports medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay. But there still are some questions about its use.

The main cause of lung cancer is smoking, and the best way to avoid it is to quit smoking. The other problem is that lung cancer is often diagnosed in the advanced stages when treatment can't cure it.

Doctors know the CT scan can provide high quality, three-dimensional images of the lungs, and is more sensitive than a chest X-ray, says Dr. Senay. The latest CT technology can pick up tumors well under one centimeter in size. Doctors at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., are among many around the country who are testing the screening method as part of a large national trial.

There are differing opinions about the effectiveness of screening this way, with most in agreement that more study is needed before everyone is routinely screening everybody.

Researchers in Wednesday's Journal Of The American Medical Association studied the potential benefits, harms, and cost-effectiveness of annual CT screening for people at high risk of lung cancer, and found that although it has benefits, it's still not ready for prime time.

They used a computer model to simulate annual CT screenings for smokers and former smokers, says Dr. Senay.

They predicted the death rate from lung cancer would decrease 13 percent for smokers, but there also would be more unnecessary procedures, resulting from the detection of benign tumors. They also determined that because the cost of CT scans is so high - a few hundred dollars per person - routine scannings will not be likely, she reports.

Some think the CT scan will be a useful tool for smokers or former smokers. So if you are concerned, consult your doctor. The researchers say it's too early to recommend a CT scan, because we don't have enough data about effectiveness and these scans are not risk-free.

The marketing of CT scans for the general public has increased demand for lung cancer screening, but until there's solid data, consumers should hold off on routine screenings. And always ask your doctor before you decide on any health issues.