Lung Screenings Reduce Mortality - New insurance ruling covers test for lung cancerJun 25, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cory Batelaan
By Renee Novelle
A recent decision in the healthcare industry could mean a life-saving opportunity for many Southwest Floridians. On February 5, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declared they would cover low-dose CT (LDCT) lung screenings for eligible patients, and most private insurance companies quickly followed their lead. The announcement was based on the successful findings of a two-year study of 53,454 participants led by the National Lung Screening Trial, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Though this groundbreaking decision offers hope for thousands of individuals, many still don’t quite understand the advantage.
“There has never been a way to screen for lung cancer that has been shown to reduce mortality,” states Dr. Joshua Franklin, a radiologist at Radiology Regional Center, which has nine locations in Southwest Florida. He notes that in the past, lung cancer has been discovered either incidentally while conducting exams for other health concerns, or once patients start showing symptoms—at which point the cancer is too progressive to treat successfully. “This is the first time ever that the medical community in any way has been able to screen a high-risk population for lung cancer.”
Dr. Jorge Serra, an internal-medicine physician in Bonita Springs, is optimistic about what LDCT could mean for his patients. “Knowing our population down here in Southwest Florida… this is a population that is highly at risk for lung cancer. So if we can find and develop techniques to diagnose it earlier, that would be a tremendous advantage,” he says. “Already I have done this CT screening and have diagnosed early cancers, which I wouldn’t have been able to diagnose if I didn’t have this technology available. The key is to pick this up early, and I think this is going to be an important tool for physicians.”
LDCT is a pain-free, noninvasive exam that requires no advance preparation from the patient. During the approximately 15-minute screening, a series of pictures is taken of the patient’s lungs that will assist medical professionals in finding lung cancers at their earliest stages. According to the American College of Radiology, early studies have proven that patients who receive this scan once a year have a 20 percent increase in their survival rate compared with those who undergo traditional screening methods. With approximately 158,404 of the 221,200 new cases that the American Cancer Society estimates will be found in 2015 leading to mortality, that is a significant number of lives saved from what is currently the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.
Though the exam has been available for more than a decade, Medicare has set a precedent by including it among its covered preventive measures. Patients are eligible once a year if they are between the ages of 55-77 and are current or former “heavy” smokers, which is defined as having smoked the equivalent of at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years. Dr. Serra believes this could make all the difference for those who are living on fixed incomes. “Sometimes the apprehension of the patients is that some of them don’t have the (financial) resources and they don’t want to do screening testing. They only want to do what is absolutely necessary. So having this approved by Medicare is actually great.”
While financial resources are one concern, another common concern among patients is the exposure to radiation. “People are scared of radiation because they don’t understand it. We try to keep it very low,” says Dr. Franklin, who explains that one way to understand it is to compare the dose of radiation from LDCT with the amount of radiation you would get naturally from being on the earth, which is approximately the equivalent of just six months. While there are always some risks involved with radiation, the National Lung Screening Trial did confirm that the benefits of LDCT in high-risk patients far outweigh the risks from radiation. “We’re in the business of trying to help people stay alive,” Dr. Franklin adds.
Radiology Regional Center, among other organizations, has launched a campaign to educate both local physicians and the community on the availability of this important resource. Because this scan requires an order from a licensed physician, eligible individuals are encouraged to speak with their doctors about it as soon as they can.
Renee Novelle is an author and freelance journalist living in Southwest Florida.