Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Australia. Globally, 1.59 million deaths were due to lung cancer in 2012, by far the greatest single cause of cancer death. The independent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council highlighted lung cancer as one of six emerging areas of concern. Despite overall incidence falling between 2007 and 2013, lung cancer rate among women has increased substantially, reinforcing the need for ongoing emphasis on prevention, early identification and treatment of this disease.
The advent of low dose computed tomography (LDCT) has provided an opportunity to detect lung cancers in its early stage, and the potential to reduce the overall mortality of lung cancer affected patients. This has generated much clinical and public interest in lung cancer screening. However, there is ongoing debate about the benefits and feasibility of screening and the topic remains controversial.
Only one high quality randomised control trial, NLST, demonstrated a reduction in lung cancer mortality from screening.The American College of Radiology has taken the lead in setting standards in the US. Australian Government guidelines call for robust governance for all screening programs, however the practicalities of this for lung cancer screening in Australia have yet to be established.
Aside from NLST, all other RCTs have been conducted in Europe and have either shown no mortality benefit or are yet to report mortality data. Only the NELSON trial is large enough to independently provide an answer on mortality. The European trials used different eligibility criteria to NLST and probably recruited slightly lower risk participants than NLST although all RCTs have included only current and former smokers.
Many expert bodies in North America, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and some professional organisations in Europe, such as the ESR/ERS now recommend screening. Lung cancer screening is now available in the U.S. where over 2000 U.S. radiology providers have registered with The American College of Radiology (ACR) Lung Cancer Screening Registry™ to meet quality reporting requirements and receive Medicare CT lung cancer screening payments. However, opinion in the US is not uniform; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs elected to conduct its own pilot program and the American Academy of Family Physicians concluded that the evidence was insufficient to make a recommendation. Other experts are more conservative and do not recommend screening at the present time in their country or healthcare setting. In addition, some guidelines adhere firmly to NLST inclusion criteria, others based on modelling and expert opinion, have broader inclusion criteria. The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) recognizes the difficulty generalising US results to non-US health settings and recommends each country/ health care setting comes to its own independent decision. There are no high level implementation studies in the Australian context supporting population-based CT screening. Furthermore there are no recent Australian cost-effectiveness data; one Australian modelled study (pre-NLST) was circumspect in its conclusions. For these reasons, the Australian Department of Health Standing Committee on Screening viewpoint is that screening cannot be adopted in Australia at the present time.
It is clear that worldwide expert opinion differs on a) whether or not screening should be recommended and b) which criteria should be used to determine screening eligibility. This guideline does not attempt to make general lung cancer screening recommendations; rather it attempts to make recommendations that are specific to the Australian situation at the current time. Specifically to Australia, the potential cost and cost-effectiveness of screening in this country are unknown, the generalisability of NLST results outside of the US healthcare system are uncertain and the mechanisms to ensure high quality screening practice are lacking.
Although the situation pertaining to Australia is uncertain at present, this guideline will be regularly updated as new evidence becomes available. It is likely that the situation will become clearer as time moves on, and when the NELSON results are published. In this respect we offer evidence based guidance on whether population-based screening should be offered in Australia at the current time (In people at risk of lung cancer, does population based CT screening reduce mortality?) and if it were offered, who it would potentially benefit (In people at risk of lung cancer, does population based CT screening reduce mortality?) in the context of the current international and Australia-specific uncertainties. We also highlight research gaps that need addressing in the section "Issues requiring more clinical research study to address gaps in the Australian context".
Systematic review questions
Two clinical questions in regards to CT Screening were addressed via systematic review:
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