A report in a research letter by Odette Wegwarth and Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin said cancer screenings can find treatable disease at an earlier stage but they can also detect cancers that will never progress to the point of causing symptoms. Detection of early, slow-growing cancers can lead to unnecessary surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the authors said.
The researchers conducted an online survey of 317 U.S. men and women ages 50-69 to find out how many patients had been informed of over-diagnosis and over-treatment by their physicians and how much over-diagnosis they would tolerate when deciding whether to start or continue screening.
The study, published in the journal Internal Medicine, found 9.5 percent of study participants reported their physicians had told them about the possibility of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, and about half of the participants reported they were unprepared to start a screening that results in more than one over-treated person for each life saved from cancer death.
Nearly 59 percent reported they would continue the cancer screening they receive regularly even if they learned that the test results in 10 over-treated people per one life saved from cancer death.
"The results of the present study indicate that physicians' counseling on screening does not meet patients' standards," the researchers said in a statement.