No Country for Old Smokers

flying cadeucii“Traditionally, doctors used to be called in when needed. But this is now changing. Increasingly it is the doctor who calls the person in by issuing an invitation. Healthy people are asked to visit the surgery for a ‘check-up’, or ‘screening’, when their computerized records show they are ‘due’. Non-attendance is known as ‘non-compliance’, indicating an element of recklessness and irresponsibility.”

Petr Skrabanek. The Death of Humane Medicine and Rise of Coercive Healthism.

If CMS endorses MEDCAC’s recommendations regarding low dose screening CT for lung cancer, we may see a coverage scenario that might be mistaken for an episode of Saturday Night Live.

It will be illegal for private insurance to charge a sixty four year-old smoker screened for lung cancer even a $10 copayment for CT. But a year later on his sixty fifth birthday, when he finally enjoys the security of government from rapacious capitalists, he no longer will be covered for that screening CT.

What science juxtaposes unfettered eligibility and zero eligibility within a year? Does the risk of lung cancer from smoking miraculously cease once covered by Medicare?

This is a result of two trends at odds with one another. Uniformity of coverage and Balkanization of Bureaucracy.

Result: inconsistency.

The United States Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF) is satisfied that screening CT reduces mortality from lung cancer. The Medicare Evidence Development and Coverage Advisory Committee (MEDCAC, not to be confused with MedPAC) has concerns.

Arbitrariness versus Arbitrariness

This is the confusion.

64 YO smoker: Screening CT saves your life and is an essential medical benefit.

65 YO smoker:  Overdiagnosis, anxiety from false positive CT and radiation-induced malignancy are far greater existential threats than that death from lung cancer that we’ve been warning you about.

Isn’t variation in healthcare because we don’t follow evidence-based medicine (EBM)?  But government advisors, who are among the brightest and most accomplished scholars, strictly follow science. Why opposite conclusions of the USPSTF and MEDCAC?

One reason is the lack of a normative frame – i.e. thresholds and ceilings for approval are neither explicitly stated not religiously followed.  Advisors have their pet peeves which they bring to the table. It’s a case of ‘me and my arbitrariness versus you and your arbitrariness.’

Screening is an information problem. If we know who will and who won’t have cancer we won’t have to screen. No screening test is perfect. You won’t get a Nobel Prize for finding faults with screening. But you will get the Jha Award for Intellectual Honesty if you fulfil the following.

a)     Explicitly state a threshold for rejecting a screening test (for example ‘numbers needed to treat (NNT) should not exceed 666’)

b)     Show how you reached the threshold (yes, I’m like your math teacher. I want to see the working, not just the answer).

c)     Apply your reasoning uniformly to ALL screening tests (regardless if supported by the NFL).

Being concerned about false positives (FPs) in screening CT is like saying this night is terrible because it is dark. If you think there are too many false positives in screening for lung cancer tell us how many is too many. How did you arrive at that number? Is it more than screening for cervical, prostate, breast and colorectal cancer? If not, why not?

Two wrongs don’t make a right, you say. Well two rights don’t suddenly make a wrong.

Anxiety from False Positives

A thought experiment. You’re a heavy smoker; constantly reminded by media, healthism activists and public health folks that you’ll die an early and miserable death from disseminated lung cancer. You won’t be able to breathe easily because fluid surrounds your lungs; you will turn yellow from jaundice; bones will break easily.

To reduce chances of a miserable end you have a screening CT which shows ‘6 mm nodule, possible cancer, follow-up in 6 months.’ After 6 months CT shows ‘no change, but follow-up in 6 months to be certain that benign.’ After another CT, your doctor says ‘it’s a false positive!

What would you do with the news of false positive?

I suspect you’ll celebrate. Shout out from the roof tops ‘I won’t have a miserable death from lung cancer. I have a false positive! Gotcha fate.

Imagine if a somber professor intervened between you and the first CT scan and said ‘Whoa, I can’t let you go on that. You are in danger. Grave danger. Of anxiety from a false positive.’

I suspect a smoker might have a better handle on irony here.

‘After driving my anxiety off the scale that I’ll get cancer so that I quit smoking, now you are worried that I might be anxious for having the cancer that you’ve been harping on about all my smoking life!’

‘Sir, every day I don’t die is a false positive.’

Thankfully, research confirms common sense. No, smokers aren’t anxious about false positive CTs, just as base jumpers don’t say ‘I’m really concerned that I’ll land safely when I think I’m going to die and not actually die.’

Numbers Needed to Treat/ Screen

NNT is a good measure for efficacy of screening and is a more tolerable proxy for the unutterable term ‘costs.’

How does screening CT for lung cancer do? Not bad, actually. At least, better than mammograms. 320 smokers need to be screened to save one life from lung cancer whereas 1339 women 50-59 need to be screened to save one life from breast cancer.

CMS obviously is in no rush to stop coverage for mammography. Why are smokers different?

Smokers don’t induce the pink sentiment, even though lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer. They lack a lobby in Washington. Smoking the poster child of avoidable harm, smokers gets little sympathy.

Radiation and Common Sense

All evidence is not equal. Some evidence is more equal than others. Or, has a narrower bandwidth of uncertainty.

The risk of malignancy in an adult from low dose CT, which now barely produces more radiation than a year in Denver, is based on a model with many assumptions – i.e. it remains conjectural (lots of uncertainty that correct). Few would disagree that the risk of lung cancer attributable to smoking isn’t conjectural (far higher certainty that correct).

To be concerned about radiation from CT in a child is prudence.

To be so concerned about radiation-induced malignancy from CT in a 70 year old, who already has a 20 fold increase in relative risk of lung cancer because of 30-pack year smoking, that one stops the smoker from being scanned to search for the malignancy, is parody.

More trials? Really?

The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) randomized smokers to low dose CT and chest radiographs. It is a rigorous, multicenter study which found that low dose CT reduced mortality from lung cancer by 20 %.

Critics say the NLST is impressive but it is only an n of 1: i.e. we need more evidence. More! Like an observational study? Or more RCTs?

If evidence from an RCT, the ‘Brahmin’ of EBM, which enrolled over 50, 000 patients (and cost $250 million) can’t be trusted who can we trust these days? And how many RCTs are enough? Precise answer to these questions is more difficult than academic hand waving.

Incidentally, I doubt many Institutional Review Boards will approve another RCT for CT lung cancer screening. Equipoise no longer exists.

I mean you can no longer say to a trial participant with a straight face ‘we are not sure screening CT really saves lives.’ Particularly when the NLST was stopped when researchers found the evidence of benefit of screening CT so compelling that randomization (50 % chance of not receiving treatment with benefits) would be unethical.

Reflect on this for a moment. It is unethical for a researcher to give smokers 50 % chance of not receiving screening CT which might save their lives. But it’s not unethical for CMS to give smokers no chance of screening CT which might save their lives.

Why do we need both USPSTF and MEDCAC?

Ostensibly, because Medicare recipients have different healthcare needs. What works for a thirty year old doesn’t necessarily apply to a nonagenarian. But there’s no reason that what is beneficial for a 62 year old isn’t for a 68 year old.

Here is an important point. In screening age and comorbidities matter. Benefits of screening diminish with age. MEDCAC could certainly have recommended an upper limit of age when coverage for lung (and breast and colorectal) cancer ceases. That is, for example, CMS will reimburse screening CT for a 68 year-old but not an 85 year-old smoker.

This requires political courage as accusations of death panels are never far off. Academics who advise the government can either shield politicians from addressing inconvenient truths for their electoral prospects or expose them to the rhetoric of democracy so that they are forced to address difficult issues. My preference is latter.

The upper age for screening CTs can be set by the common sense of radiologists. When we see a script for a 90 year old for lung cancer screening, we should pick up the phone and say ‘no, this is wasteful’ without fear of that hackneyed term ‘rationing.’

Failing that, the American College of Radiology and other specialist societies which have tirelessly lamented MEDCAC’s decision, ought to take the lead enforcing an age limit and demonstrating that they understand in which patients screening is futile.

Saving lives cost $$$$

The most compelling argument against screening CT for lung cancer dare not be used: cost. This is estimated at a $9 billion over the first five years.

(Psst, that’s 9 BILLION. ‘B’ as in ‘be very afraid’)

But basing coverage on a threshold of costs per quality associated life years, as in Britain’s NHS, is anathema to American culture. Politically dangerous. Reinforced by the ethos of comparative effectiveness, as opposed to cost effectiveness, which has the noble but unsustainable ideal ‘let them have cake… if cake is evidence-based.’

ACA and Screening

The ACA endorses prevention and wellness. The oft quoted ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure’ runs through many of its statutes. There’s widespread belief that screening reduces net future medical costs for populations. There’s not an ounce of evidence to support this for many screening tests presently used.

Furthermore, patient adherence to screening, including highly contentious mammograms, is a quality metric for physicians. The rejection of screening CT for lung cancer would send a mixed message.

Ok short break for irony spotting. Think about this. We’re vigorously debating whether screening mammograms prolong life. But recommending mammograms is a quality metric! That’s like saying ‘ice axe is won’t help in the hike. But you’re a terrible leader for not reminding us to bring it along.’

Upside down Morality and Downside up Economics

Does this make moral sense?

A middle class family on a bronze plan making just over four times the federal poverty limit must pay for child’s antibiotics. But a healthy CEO of a large non-profit hospital will receive a screening colonoscopy without even incurring a copayment. His physician will tick quality boxes; one for reminding him to get screened and one for his kind compliance.

Got that? Sick (and middle class): cost share. Well (and 1 %): no cost sharing.

Equality has just scored an own goal!

This upside down economics seem nonsensical until you blink. There is price elasticity in screening, meaning the well are likely to forego the test at even modest copayments. Thus, the ACA forbids cost sharing for screening tests approved by USPSTF.

Screening is a gift that keeps on giving. Yes, ACA has dug its own cost grave here.

If the cake is too expensive say so, and we’ll stick to bread


Blink again and screening is an intrusion in to the lives of the healthy, an inversion of the doctor-patient relationship that Skrabanek observed.


Like Skrabanek, I believe the Hippocratic Oath is a contract to heal the ill not hound the well. Were it up to me, screening tests (barring very few) would be the first to drop out of essential medical benefits of private insurance, to be released to the vicissitudes of the market beside caviar and flight insurance. Assuming money is no object, screening CT for lung cancer would be one of the last to go though. At least not until the much coveted annual physical examination of highly dubious value is still covered and men are still rendered incontinent from prostatectomy and live no longer as a result.


Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. But inconsistency undermines public trust in government institutions. For logical consistency that’s syntonic with the rhetoric of prevention, an exaggerated optimism no doubt, CMS should approve low dose screening CTs for lung cancer.


But if costs are the issue, CMS should be bold enough to say so, rather than cloak the rejection in the pretense of science. I, for one, will respect them for that.








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32 replies »

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  2. What makes you think I disagree?

    The point of the piece is to show the inconsistencies with regards to screening, inconsistencies which have been bred by political expediency and masquerade in an affectation of science.

    Most philosophies are ok within a certain bandwidth. Shared decision making is fine but a world with zero paternalism isn’t one that might be considered as palatable as many think.

    Nevertheless, this could be a nice point: counterpoint.

  3. No gauntlet needed. It is a philosophical issue. The debate is; who is in charge of making decisions. No physician or insurer should do that. We have become accustomed to making choices for others. My suggestion is that should change.

  4. In most democracies single payer was a Pareto improvement. In USA it won’t be so.

    The masses don’t want pain and they have a political party, supposedly left leaning, which at the inception of the greatest reshuffling of status quo, told them they can have their cake and eat it.

    Peter, this IS democracy!

  5. The worse alternative is single-pay or the worse alternative is not democracy?

    Many democracies use single-pay, or some form, and their costs are typically about half. Think we’ll ever get to those costs without pain?

  6. “This blog is fun, but philosophically suspect, in my view, and the data about CT scanning so unsound that no group should be using the data to suggest universal use”

    Game on, Bob!

    Put your objections to my points in a blog and I shall respond in another post.

    John: I’ve thrown the gauntlet!

  7. Thank you for kind comments; I have become aware more and more that a person having to make a choice when given the opportunity gets really smart really quick. A person’s choice making trumps medical care’s old ideas. The act of a person choosing trumps and circumvents the uncertainties of the present models of science that need rethinking. I would love to sit and debate, Peter, but from a practical stand point and under present philosophies of care, you are correct. Physicians are presently in the power chair of choice. For chronic care, trade-off decision making, however, I find this a weak philosophy that will not stand the test of a time of information explosion, transparency, and accountability. A debate should be; what insurance plan or incentive plan should be in place to include patients’ choices. The portfolio of choices made by informed patients will differ from the portfolio posed by physicians, and the insurance industry will win if patients begin to choose and our philosophies don’t change. The debate should not be, however, who should choose. This blog is fun, but philosophically suspect, in my view, and the data about CT scanning so unsound that no group should be using the data to suggest universal use. Even if was correct, no group should decide for any individual.

  8. This is it Peter. This is democracy!

    I am reliably informed that the alternative is worse.

  9. Thanks Al.

    BTW, the book by you and Vik burst a few hernias! What a cracker! Right down my alley for wit.

  10. Dr Jha, very good article. You make excellent points about the illogical aspects of screening. I believe however the cut off for CT screening is not age 65. The NSLT study screened patients 55-75 and the USPHS recommendation is to age 80.

  11. Thanks Alan for the facts, but how do we get patients who think their long shot for our costs is worth the test and the right then screams “death panels” if we quote statistics? Vegas is full of foolish people who think their on the right side of a long shot.

    @ Bob, I think patients should be part of the decision, but not necessarily make the decision. Doctors advise and order tests, patients aren’t doctors.

    I think we should follow the science, then if patients want more than the science they can pay for it. I guess we’ll just have to accept more wealthy people getting their long shot winnings.

  12. Saurabh, agreed that Left and Right are dishonest, if not to others, to themselves. The left wants benefits until they have to pay for them, the right wants “market” restrictions until the market blocks access for them and not just the unwashed masses.

    Health care is a hard pill to swallow, single-pay puts everyone in the same boat where more access/use = higher taxes – for all. Now, what do you want if you know it will cost more – proportionally?

  13. Alan, please take a look at my blog and kick it around (www.sharedmedchoice.com/blog/. I am trying to do what you hope for; show the data. It intrigues me that the writer of this blog says mammograms are contentious when a 90,000 person trial shows no difference if screened.
    As far as the CT trial, there were 1500 sites, or so, providing patients for the CT study and I know of patients not getting to data collection from many of the sites as they had lesions their doctors could not live with. Also, if anyone thinks that a statistical significant result is a positive result, they are mistaken. Rather than debate the science, however, I find showing the numbers to patients level the scientific playing field, and they tell us when enough is enough, or too much.

  14. Bob: Bravo. Totally agree. At the end of the day the only real ‘decision maker’ is the person who puts the pill in his mouth, or agrees to get a test. And the one thing that person needs (and really has to work hard to get ) is unbiased, quality, independent information free of the corrosive biases of politics, economics, and professional hubris.

  15. Alan,

    Thank you for your response. I believe only patients should decide. I practice only as a shared decision consultant and have had people come for advice on CT screening. When I show them the data, they say, “What?”. I have yet to have an informed patient take the test, making differences in insurance plans moot. But, that is not fair as the people who come to me for an informed decision-making consult may not represent the usual. But, the point is that governments, political proclivities, task forces, guideline developers, insurers and, even, doctors are not decision makers and should keep their ideas to themselves; the patient is the only decision maker. Show patients the data and let them make their own trade-offs.

  16. We shouldn’t read too much into the USPSTF stamp of approval on CT screening for lung cancer because while they are saying such screening ‘works’, they don’t emphasize how little it works. The “20% reduction” is a rogue stat that should be labeled a terrorist threat and taken down with a surface-to-air missile. The number of deaths by lung cancer in seven years of screening among those screened with Xray was 1.7%; the number by CT scan was 1.4%. If you go from a rate of 1.7 per 100 down to a rate of 1.4 per 100, that’s your “20% drop.” In reality, 3 in 1,000 thus CT screened might have benefited over xray screening. Maybe.
    That same study found that of those heavy smokers who get their lungs screened with a CT scanner and in whom something suspicious is found, 96.4% of the time it’s something abnormal but not cancerous and not worth worrying about.
    I wonder if they tell the screenees this one vital factoid? Of 100 suspicious findings we discover in the lungs of heavy smokers like you, 96 of them won’t be dangerous cancers, but that won’t stop us from opening you up with saws and scalpels and checking, just to be sure…

  17. I am a bit late to this party but kudos for a great article. That Age 64-Age 65 dichotomy is a brilliant smackdown. I wish I could add something but like saying “Bud,” you’ve said it all. (If you’re under 50 google it, assuming you have time between unncessary screenings.)

  18. “Lucidity and probity will always fall victim to greed.”

    There’s advice we can take to the bank.

  19. “I prize privacy even more.”

    Vik, no one forced you to reveal your personal testing habits, however I fail to see how an answer (even in general terms) to my question would have breached your personal security. Was embarrassment more on your mind?

    As for me being a “troll” my history on this blog far out passes yours.

    You do your share of questioning posters comments – I guess when it suits your ends. Maybe it’s a goose/gander thing.

  20. Vik, I think you explain it nicely in your book.

    This is part of the deterministic culture. Early diagnosis, anticipatory medicine.

  21. Come on Peter!

    You are consistent. Funny. But not entirely fair!

    Neither side of the political divide has been honest. If the far right has used the rhetoric of rationing and (non-far) left has convinced everyone that costs don’t matter.

    I don’t think single payer sells well to unions who have cadillac insurance.

    All pigs walk on two legs. Useful never to forget that.

  22. All the time, but not from trolls who aren’t actually offering any and, instead, ask inapprorpiate personal questions.

    I do, indeed, prize markets, but I prize privacy even more.

    There was advice in your comment? Sorry, I missed it in all its rollicking insignificance.

  23. @ Vik, just wanted to make sure you are not part of the “moronic screed”.

    You’re good at giving advice, do you take it?

  24. “The screening today, screening tomorrow, screening forever screeching by “prevention” advocates has now just become a moronic screed that is accepted and repeated without insight or analysis.”

    V-I-K, how would you stop this? Single Pay? Co-pays only the wealthy could afford? “Death Panel” boards? Assuming private plans are, “free market” as you advocate.

    How often does your wife get a breast cancer screening, you a colonoscopy?

  25. Perry, you are right, but it is not possible in an environment where so much money is at stake. Lucidity and probity will always fall victim to greed.

  26. Saurabh, an outstanding takedown of the stupidity of our approach to screening, and especially the ludicrous propellent provided to screening advocates by the ACA.

    Alas, screenings are a cash cow, which is why everyone in the private health plan /health & hospital system space is all on board. Why strive for leaner, more focused, more efficient, and less wasteful when you can stuff your overstaffed and overladen diagnostic facilities full of people who have no logical reason to be there.

    The screening today, screening tomorrow, screening forever screeching by “prevention” advocates has now just become a moronic screed that is accepted and repeated without insight or analysis.

    “There’s widespread belief that screening reduces net future medical costs for populations. There’s not an ounce of evidence to support this for many screening tests presently used.” — Absolutely correct and nicely stated.

  27. “CMS obviously is in no rush to stop coverage for mammography. Why are smokers different?”

    We want to teach them a lesson.

    Resolving this would be Medicare for all – OH NO!, not single pay, that would be too fair and non class war-ish. Buffet – “My class is winning”