New Guidelines Differ in Advice on PSA Screening

Photo source: Darryl Leja, NHGRI
Photo source: Darryl Leja, NHGRI
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The benefits of prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer in men has been under controversy for a number of years. Some of the issues are that although prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, most prostate cancers are slow-growing and never cause problems. And while PSA screening can detect cancer early, when it is curable, it is most commonly positive with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), not prostate cancer. (For more details about the issues, see the articles on PSA and Prostate Cancer.)

An international panel of experts recently published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) their “Rapid Recommendations” that outlined initiatives advising against routine PSA screening for prostate cancer. Moreover, they suggest that healthcare practitioners should not feel compelled to routinely ask patients about their desire for screening, though they should help patients who raise the issue to make an informed decision.

The recommendations state that for most men, the benefit of screening is small and uncertain, and that there are clear harms and possible side-effects involved in follow-up treatment for positive PSA results. The panel acknowledges that these recommendations may not apply to all men, especially those who have a family history of prostate cancer, are of African descent, or of lower socioeconomic status. For these men, the panel recommends shared decision-making between the patient and the healthcare practitioner.

However, The BMJ panel’s guidance contrasts with advice from other organizations that also issue PSA screening recommendations. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) earlier this year updated and finalized guidelines that moved from recommending against routine PSA screening to advising that men ages 55 to 69 discuss the issue with their healthcare practitioners to make an informed decision about whether screening is right for them. The Task Force did recommend that men age 70 or older would not need screening.

The change came about after the Task Force reviewed published data on 1,904,950 men on the use of PSA testing to screen for cancer. The USPSTF team’s research revealed that the potential harms and benefits of PSA screening for this population are about the same, leading them to conclude that the decision to screen “should be an individual one.” Men considering screening should weigh the potential benefits and harms, including:

Potential benefits of PSA screening

  • Early detection of cancer when it is most treatable would potentially lower the risk of cancer death for some men.
  • Detecting any prostate cancer for men who value knowing their cancer status over possible PSA screening harms

Potential harms of PSA screening

  • A false-positive test result (when a man has an elevated PSA level but does not have prostate cancer) could lead to stress and more unnecessary tests, including a prostate biopsy. Possible prostate biopsy side-effects and complications include blood in semen, blood in urine, pain, fever, and sepsis.
  • The overdiagnosis and treatment of men with prostate cancer who would never have symptoms or die from their cancer; treatment, which typically includes surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, can lead to urinary incontinence, bowel dysfunction and erectile dysfunction. Some men may avoid harms of overtreatment by choosing not to treat immediately but opting for “watchful waiting,” which may include occasional PSA tests, or “active surveillance” that involves PSA tests done about every six months with digital rectal exams and prostate biopsies (annually) to monitor the cancer.

The BMJ panel came to their conclusion based on a detailed review and analysis of over 700,000 men in five PSA screening clinical trials who had no previous diagnosis of prostate cancer. Analyses of the clinical trial data revealed that for this population of men, PSA screening reduces prostate cancer deaths, but the effect is small. Most of the men with elevated PSA levels opted to have a prostate biopsy, but no cancer was found. As for the small number of men whose elevated PSA levels were consistent with prostate cancer, many would never experience symptoms or die from their cancer. Therefore, the panel issued a “weak recommendation” against healthcare providers actively offering PSA screening to their patients.

The BMJ panel’s recommendation is categorized as weak because of the “small and uncertain benefits of screening on prostate cancer mortality and the large variability in men’s values and preferences.” More simply put, a weak recommendation means that shared decision-making is important. For men who ask about PSA screening, The BMJ panel urges healthcare providers to share information with their patients so that they can make educated decisions for themselves.

The American Academy of Family Physicians agrees with The BMJ Rapid Recommendations, while other groups, including the American Cancer Society, the American Urological Association, the American College of Physicians, and the U.S. National Comprehensive Cancer Network, have issued PSA screening recommendations that are similar to those of the USPSTF.

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