Try These Steps to Boost Lung Cancer Screens

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A few years ago, Kim Lori Sandler, MD, realized many patients newly diagnosed with lung cancer had never been screened for the disease — they received CT scans only because they were symptomatic.

photo of Kim Lori Sandler, MD
Kim Lori Sandler, MD

But Sandler, a radiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, could see in medical charts that most of these patients had been eligible for a screening before becoming symptomatic. And for women, most had received decades worth of mammograms. She saw an opportunity and launched a study to find out if an intervention would work.

Low-dose CT and mammography services often are available in the same imaging facility, so women who qualified for a lung cancer screening were offered the scan during their mammography visit. Monthly rates of lung scans in women rose by 50% at one facility and 36% at the other over a 3-year period.

“What we found is that women are really receptive, if you talk to them about it,” Sandler said. “I don’t think that lung cancer is thought of as a disease in women.”

Although lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found only 18% of eligible patients were screened in 2022, a far cry from the rates of 72% for colon cancer — which itself falls short of goals from US medical groups like the American Cancer Society (ACS). Among those eligible, rates of lung screenings were lowest among younger people without comorbid conditions, who did not have health insurance or a usual source of care, and those living in southern states and states that did not expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.

But researchers and clinicians, from those working in an urban health center for the homeless to clinics in the poorest counties in the tobacco belt, have used strategies to raise their rates of screening for lung cancer.

Getting patients screened is lifesaving: 27% of people with lung cancer survive 5 years after diagnosis. But the survival rate rises to 63% when cases are diagnosed at an early stage.

Increasing Uptake

The formal recommendation to use low-dose chest CT to screen for lung cancer is only a decade old. The approach was first endorsed by the United States Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF) on the basis of an influential trial that found such testing was linked to a 20% reduction in mortality from the disease. Updated 2021 USPSTF guidelines call for annual screening of people aged 50-80 years who have a 20 pack-year history of smoking and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.

But implementing the recommendation is not always simple. Unlike a colorectal or breast cancer screening, which is recommended primarily on patient age, eligibility for a lung cancer screening requires calculating pack-years of smoking and for past smokers, knowledge of when they quit.

The structured fields in most electronic medical records (EMRs) inquire about current or past use of cigarettes and the number of daily packs smoked. But few EMRs can calculate when a patient starts smoking two cigarettes a day but then increases to a pack a day and cuts down again. EMRs also do not track when a patient has stopped smoking permanently. Individual clinicians or health systems must identify patients who are eligible for screening, but the lack of automated calculations makes that job more difficult.

Sandler and her colleagues turned to the informatics team at Vanderbilt to develop a natural language processing approach that extracts smoking data directly from clinician notes instead of using standard variables in their EMR.

The number of patients identified as needing a screening using the algorithm nearly doubled from baseline, from 5887 to 10,231 over a 3-year period, according to results from another study that Sandler published.

Although the algorithm may occasionally flag someone who does not need screening as eligible, “you can always have a conversation with the patient to determine if they actually meet eligibility criteria,” Sandler said.

Patient Navigators to the Rescue?

About a decade ago, Travis Baggett, MD, MPH, an associate professor of internal medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, received pilot funding from the ACS to study cancer epidemiology among patients at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), which serves nearly 10,000 patients at a variety of Boston-area clinics each year.

photo of Travis Baggett
Travis Baggett, MD, MPH

“We found that both the incidence and mortality rates for lung cancer were more than twofold higher than in the general population,” Baggett, who is also the director of research at BHCHP, said.

He also discovered that BHCHP patients were diagnosed at significantly later stages than people in the general population for malignancies like breast and colorectal cancer.

Screening for lung cancer was a new recommendation at the time. With additional funding from the ACS, he launched a clinical trial in 2020 that randomized patients who were eligible for lung cancer screening to either work with a patient navigator or receive usual care.

The navigators eased the burden on primary care clinicians: They facilitated shared decision-making visits, helped participants make and attend appointments for low-dose CT, assisted with transportation, and arranged follow-up as needed.

The 3-year study found 43% of patients who received navigation services underwent screening for lung cancer compared with 9% in the usual care arm. Participants said the navigators played a critical role in educating them about the importance of screening, coordinating care, and providing emotional support.

“At the root of it all, it was quite clear that one thing that made the navigator successful was their interpersonal qualities and having someone that the patient could trust to help guide them through the process,” Baggett said.

The navigator program, however, stopped when the funding for the study ended.

But another health system has implemented navigators in a sustainable way through a quality improvement project. Michael Gieske, MD, director of lung cancer screening at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, Kentucky, starts his Friday morning meeting with a multidisciplinary group, including a thoracic surgeon, radiologist, pulmonologist, and several screening nurse navigators. They review the week’s chest CTs, with approximately one third from patients who underwent lung cancer screening.

Nurse navigators at St. Elizabeth Healthcare follow up with any patient whose scan is suspicious for lung cancer and guide them through the process of seeing specialists and obtaining additional testing.

“They essentially hold the patient’s hand through this scary time in their life and make sure that everything flows smoothly and efficiently,” Gieske, a family medicine physician, said.

St. Elizabeth’s program also draws on several evidence-based strategies used for other cancer screening programs, such as patient and provider education and quarterly feedback to their 194 primary care clinicians on rates of lung cancer screening among their eligible patients.

Several requirements for reimbursement for a lung cancer screening from the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can also serve as barriers to getting patients screened: Clinicians must identify who is eligible, provide tobacco cessation counseling, and document the shared decision-making process.

To streamline the steps, St. Elizabeth’s clinicians use an EMR smart set that reminds clinicians to verify smoking history and helps them document the required counseling.

Last year, 47% of eligible patients received their recommended screening, and Gieske said he expects even more improvement.

“We’re on track this year to complete 60% uptake if things continue,” he said, adding that 76% of the new cases of lung cancer are now diagnosed in stage I, with only 5% diagnosed in stage IV.

Gieske has shared his experience with many clinics in Appalachia, home to some of the highest rates of mortality from lung cancer in the country. A major part of his role with the Appalachian Community Cancer Alliance is helping educate primary care clinicians in the region about the importance of early detection of lung cancer.

“I think one of the most important things is just to convey a message of hope,” he said. “We’re trying to get the good word out there that if you screen individuals, you’re going to catch it early, when you have an extremely high chance of curing the lung cancer.”

Baggett reported support from grants from the ACS and the Massachusetts General Hospital Research Scholars Program. Bandi, Sandler, and Gieske reported no financial conflicts.

A former pediatrician and disease detective, Ann Thomas, MD, MPH, is a freelance science writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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