New prostate recommendations – new lessons for crusading journalists

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Just four days ago, in response to an NBC News story in which reporter George Lewis recommended that all men over age 50 get annual prostate exams including the PSA blood test, I cited the statement of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to show that Lewis’ advice was not based in evidence:

The USPSTF concludes that the evidence is insufficient to recommend for or against routine screening for prostate cancer using prostate specific antigen (PSA) testing or digital rectal examination (DRE). Although the Task Force found evidence that screening can find prostate cancer early and that some cancers benefit from treatment, the Task Force is uncertain whether the potential benefits of prostate cancer screening justify the potential harms.

The potential harms of prostate cancer screening include fairly frequent false-positive results from PSA screening, which may lead to unnecessary anxiety and biopsies. In addition, early detection and treatment may result in complications from treating some cancers that may never have affected a patient’s health.

Yesterday the USPSTF updated its recommendation and it makes Lewis’ on-the-air statement to all of NBC’s viewers all the more problematic in its crusading advocacy that is not supported by evidence:

In men younger than age 75 years, the USPSTF found inadequate evidence to determine whether treatment for prostate cancer detected by screening improves health outcomes compared with treatment after clinical detection.

In men age 75 years or older, the USPSTF found adequate evidence that the incremental benefits of treatment for prostate cancer detected by screening are small to none.

The USPSTF found convincing evidence that treatment for prostate cancer detected by screening causes moderate-to-substantial harms, such as erectile dysfunction, urinary incontinence, bowel dysfunction, and death. These harms are especially important because some men with prostate cancer who are treated would never have developed symptoms related to cancer during their lifetime.

There is also adequate evidence that the screening process produces at least small harms, including pain and discomfort associated with prostate biopsy and psychological effects of false-positive test results.

The USPSTF concludes that for men younger than age 75 years, the benefits of screening for prostate cancer are uncertain and the balance of benefits and harms cannot be determined.

For men 75 years or older, there is moderate certainty that the harms of screening for prostate cancer outweigh the benefits.

Older men, African-American men, and men with a family history of prostate cancer are at increased risk for diagnosis of and death from prostate cancer.1 Unfortunately, the previously described gaps in the evidence regarding potential benefits of screening also apply to these men.

The yield of screening in terms of cancer cases detected declines rapidly with repeated annual testing. If screening were to reduce deaths, PSA screening as infrequently as every 4 years could yield as much of a benefit as annual screening.

Journalism is supposed to be about evidence and facts, not crusading advocacy.

“We don’t have any studies that show prostate cancer screening saves lives,” explains Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

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