CHICAGO – One in three patients sent to surgery for a suspicious lung nodule by their community pulmonologist did not have cancer in a retrospective analysis of 385 patients.
In addition, half of patients with benign disease underwent an invasive procedure, Dr. Nichole Tanner said at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP).
Physician judgment plays a key role in the newly updated ACCP lung cancer guidelines (Chest 2013;143:e93S-e120S). They recommend that clinicians estimate the pretest probability of malignancy for indeterminate nodules larger than 8 mm either qualitatively by using their clinical judgment and/or quantitatively with a validated risk model.
Patients in the study, conducted at 16 sites across the country, had 8- to 20-mm nodules, and were mostly former (45%) or current smokers (27.5%), white (86%), and covered by private insurance (55.3%) or Medicare (38.2%). Their average age was 64.5 years.
Invasive procedures included anything outside of simple imaging for monitoring. Computed tomography (CT)- and bronchoscopic-guided biopsy were considered minor invasive procedures, while major invasive procedures included any surgical procedure such as mediastinoscopy, thoracotomy, and video-assisted thorascopic surgery (VATS).
Monitoring only was used for 184 patients, and ran the gamut from one to a "shocking seven" CT or positron-emission tomography (PET) scans in 2 years, said Dr. Tanner, with the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. None of these nodules were malignant.
Of the 124 nodules biopsied, 35% were malignant, 56% were diagnosed as benign, and 8% were benign based on stability.
Of the 77 nodules surgically removed, 64% were malignant and 36% were benign, she said.
While a reassuring 76% of nodules seen by community pulmonologists were benign, the results highlight the complexity involved in managing a patient population that is surely on the rise as lung cancer screening spreads nationally.
During a rousing debate that followed the presentation, audience members expressed concern over the 36% of patients taken to surgery for benign disease, highlighting a 3% death rate associated with thoracotomy and the potential for reduced lung function after surgery.
Others, including a thoracic surgeon, countered that removal of a suspicious nodule can catch lung disease at an earlier stage, eliminates the need for repeat CT/PET imaging exposure, and is requested by some patients for their peace of mind or even to pass a pre-employment physical.
Session comoderator and interventional respirologist Dr. Anne Gonzalez, with McGill University Health Center, Montreal, said in an interview, "I was perhaps shocked there were so many [patients] that went directly to surgery, but on the other hand, the guidelines do recommend that if the suspicion of lung cancer is high enough – 65% – patients should go to surgery."
Dr. Gonzalez also echoed comments from the floor that, importantly, the study failed to detail whether patients’ nodules were identified as incidental findings or were the result of symptom-driven screening.
In a multivariate analysis, current smoking (odds ratio, 3.28) and larger nodule size (12-15 mm: OR, 3.30; 16-20 mm: OR, 4.97) influenced who underwent invasive procedures, Dr. Tanner said. Geographic region of the country did not pan out as a predictor.
Cancer was present in 39% of 16- to 20-mm nodules and 31% of 12- to 15-mm nodules, compared with 12% of 8- to 11-mm nodules.
One attendee commented that the number of patients undergoing surgery for benign disease at his institution has dramatically declined with the establishment of a 45-member multidisciplinary tumor board to review and manage patients with lung nodules.
This approach is helpful in that patients won’t be lost to follow-up and can be presented with a plan that has the support of multiple physicians, but "I don’t see this as a feasible way with which to manage every pulmonary nodule," Dr. Tanner said in an interview. "In the lung cancer screening program we’re implementing at our Veterans Affairs hospital in the very near future, we will have a nodule tracking system to ensure that no patients are lost to follow-up and will make treatment and diagnostic decisions based on the Fleischner criteria for radiographic follow-up of lung nodules, as well as the ACCP guidelines."
Dr. Tanner reported consulting for the study sponsor, Integrated Diagnostics.