In an exclusive new survey of Top Doctors conducted by U.S. News & World Report, virtually all responding urologists and more than 60 percent of internal-medicine specialists rejected the recent proposal by a high-level government advisory committee to end routine PSA testing, which is meant to catch prostate cancer early.
An estimated 20 million men a year undergo PSA screening, which determines the blood level of a protein called prostate-specific antigen; nearly 250,000 of them are diagnosed with prostate cancer. The proposal, issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, advises doctors not to screen patients with the PSA test unless they have symptoms that are "highly suspicious" for prostate cancer.
"If you argue that you should not use PSA testing at all in [men without symptoms], you're essentially saying you don't want to find prostate cancer at a curable stage," says Dr. Samir S. Taneja, director of urologic cancer at NYU Langone Medical Center and a responder to last week's U.S. News survey.
The government task force found little evidence that screening men with the PSA test significantly reduces deaths from prostate cancer. Whatever small benefit there might be, the task force concluded, is outweighed by the risk of an incorrect diagnosis or unnecessary procedure leading to death or complications. About a third of men treated for prostate cancer suffer urinary incontinence, impotence, or both, and about 1 in every 200 dies within 30 days from complications of surgery.
Doctors have debated the risks and benefits of the PSA test since 1994, when the Food and Drug Administration approved it for cancer screening. Even the test's supporters acknowledge that it is inherently imprecise. A high PSA level may indicate the presence of a tumor—or it may not. Nor is a low PSA level necessarily an all-clear. Moreover, the test cannot distinguish between a typical tumor, which grows so slowly that the threat is minimal, and one that is aggressive and potentially lethal.
To determine whether some of the nation's best doctors agree with the task force's proposed recommendation, U.S. News surveyed more than 600 urologists and internists who are recognized as Top Doctors by U.S. News and Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. More than a third of the physicians responded. (For a breakdown of the questions and responses, see Behind the U.S. News Top Doctors Survey on PSA Screening.)
About 95 percent of the responding urologists felt that doctors should continue to advise men starting at age 50, when testing typically begins, to have PSA screenings as part of a routine physical exam, contrary to the task force's recommendation. They included themselves in that group; 97 percent indicated they would be tested starting at 50. The internists were less unanimous—about 40 percent agreed with the proposed recommendation to end routine testing. But 72 percent of the responding male internists indicated that they themselves would have the test starting at age 50.
The vast majority of the survey respondents sent U.S. News comments as well. "Can you put a price on being saved from dying of cancer?" wrote Dr. Ernest H. Agatstein, a urologist with Paletz Agatstein Urology Medical Group in Downey, Calif.
PSA screening is "an awesome test," wrote Dr. Richard J. Macchia, a urologist at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. "When I was young," he went on, "almost all the prostate cancer patients I saw had metastatic disease at diagnosis. Now, in patients who have their PSAs checked, I almost never see metastatic disease at the time of diagnosis. We can cure metastatic diseases only rarely."
Task force member Dr. Michael LeFevre, professor of family medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, says the impassioned backlash against the draft task force recommendation is unsurprising. "When science doesn't give us the result we want, it's pretty unusual for the medical and patient communities to turn on a dime and say, 'We were wrong,' " he told U.S. News.