NCHR Comments on CMS’s Proposed Decision Memo on Screening for Lung Cancer with Low Dose Computed Tomography (LDCT)

December 17, 2021.

We are writing to express our views on Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) proposed decision memo on the national coverage determination regarding screening for lung cancer with low dose computed tomography (LDCT).

The National Center for Health Research (NCHR) is a nonprofit think tank that conducts, analyzes, and scrutinizes research on a range of health issues, with particular focus on which prevention strategies and treatments are most effective for which patients and consumers. We do not accept funding from companies that make products that are the subject of our work, so we have no conflicts of interest.

We agree that former smokers would benefit from a higher rate of LDCT screening. However, we are concerned with several major aspects of the Proposed Decision Memo’s discussion of Counseling and Shared Decision-Making.

We urge CMS to amend language in the final draft of the Decision Memo to more accurately reflect the science-based evidence. The proposed memo currently reads that “Professional societies and provider groups have noted that providers have gained considerable experience and expertise and believe flexibility will reduce burden.” However, there is no evidence that providers have become better at counseling and shared decision-making regarding LDCT; on the contrary, there is evidence that there is already too much flexibility in how these discussions are framed. For example, research has found that shared decision-making conversations regarding LDCT focus on the advantages and rarely discuss the potential harms.[1] Healthcare providers spent less than a minute explaining the procedure and there was no evidence that decision aids were used. Patients deserve to make informed choices, and this is not possible under the current norms, which are too flexible. Rather than increase flexibility, CMS should provide explicit guidance for shared decision-making discussions on LDCT, such as requiring a checklist of key benefits and risks for the procedure that patients must sign after having read and discussed each point with their healthcare provider. For example, a decision-making tool could include a checklist that explains each benefit and risk in non-technical language, where the patient must initial each section to indicate that they read it, and then the physician must sign it to indicate the conversation took place, in the presence of the patient. In addition, any decision-making tool should highlight beneficiary eligibility criteria to ensure that patients who do not meet these criteria are aware that they are more likely to be harmed by LDCT screening.

 

We urge that CMS maintain the requirement that shared decision-making conversations include a patient’s healthcare provider. Although research indicates that the decision-making conversations with physicians and non-physician practitioners are often inadequate, we believe the solution is to improve training for those conversations, rather than allowing health educators and others who are not healthcare experts to provide counseling and shared decision-making without the inclusion of healthcare professionals. Shared decisions regarding medical options should be made between a patient and a healthcare provider with whom they have an established relationship, which is generally their primary care physician. That is important because if there are any abnormal findings from the LDCT, it is the healthcare provider that the patient will need to follow-up with, not an educator. Shared decision making also provides an important opportunity to discuss smoking cessation options, which primary care physicians are best equipped to do. In summary, when patients engage in shared decision-making with their healthcare provider, that aids in informed decision-making while also helping ensure continuity of care. While health educators and others who are specifically trained to discuss the risks and benefits of LDCT can be an important addition to those doctor-patient conversations, spending more time with patients than physicians do and ensuring that patients clearly understand their options, they should not replace doctor-patient shared decision-making.

 

We also urge that CMS reconsider its proposal to remove the specifications for the components of the shared decision-making tools. The agency justifies this change by stating that “the tools and guidance has matured since the early inception of shared decision-making.” We are not aware of evidence that the tools and guidance have matured, and ask CMS to provide guidance regarding decision-making tools that are based on peer-reviewed research-based articles.

 

CMS also proposes removing the LDCT lung cancer screening registry requirement. We disagree with that proposal, since the ongoing revisions to guidance regarding LDCT screening can best be evaluated using a required registry.

As a final point, we question the assumptions that patients’ current low level of screening is a function of lack of flexibility in shared decision-making and of the criteria for eligibility. We believe it more likely that the major causes are:

Former smokers are aware that their smoking put them at risk of lung cancer and they are reluctant to get tested to find out they could have a fatal disease that they were warned about for years.
Former smokers who have friends or relatives that died of lung cancer are especially afraid of a diagnosis because they have seen the ravages of lung cancer.
Discussions about LDCT that extol the benefits and ignore the risks (which research indicates are typical of these conversations) are likely to be perceived as a sales pitch by skeptical patients. A more balanced conversation about what the procedure is like, the potential risks of screening, and what research says about the benefits is likely to be more effective.

NCHR firmly believes that patients deserve to make informed choices and need access to counseling and evidence-based shared decision-making tools in order to do so. For the reasons outlined above, we urge CMS to reconsider the proposed changes, to better ensure that patients receive accurate, balanced, unbiased information on whether or not they would benefit from LDCT screening.

The National Center for Health Research can be reached at info@center4research.org or at (202) 223-4000.

References

Brenner, A. T., Malo, T. L., Margolis, M., Lafata, J. E., James, S., Vu, M. B., & Reuland, D. S. (2018). Evaluating shared decision making for lung cancer screening. JAMA internal medicine178(10), 1311-1316.

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