The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has released its recommendations for colon cancer screening, suggesting that most people over age 75 should stop getting routine colon cancer tests. In a decision at odds with some traditional views, the USPSTF opted not to give its approval to CT colonography, virtual colonoscopy, and the stool DNA test. (The 2002 guidelines did not give an age limit for screening.)

What is significant to readers of MassTortDefense is not the specific review of these tests, but the important recognition underlying the decision: that risks of screening at that age are too great to justify any possible benefit. After reviewing research on the tests, the government-appointed panel of independent medical experts concluded that the benefits of detecting and treating colon cancer decline after age 75 and the risks rise too much.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), first convened by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1984, and since 1998 sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), is perhaps the leading independent panel of private-sector experts in prevention and primary care. The USPSTF conducts rigorous assessments of the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of a broad range of clinical preventive services, including screening, counseling, and preventive medications. Its recommendations are considered in some circles the “gold standard” for clinical preventive services.

In medical monitoring claims, typically a plaintiff must prove that screening tests are reasonably medically necessary for plaintiffs because of the risks of the allegedly tortuous exposure. Despite plaintiffs’ typical theme about early detection always being efficacious, the reality is that many “routine” screening procedures have their own risks and potential side effects. As the Task Force said, “The risks and benefits of these screening methods vary.”  Where doctors must assess the risks and benefits, a powerful individual issue may emerge, affecting class certification. Even in a class setting, on the merits, the risks of procedures sought by the plaintiffs may outweigh the benefits. Thus, in this context, the Task Force noted, “The primary established harms of colorectal cancer screening are due to the use of invasive procedures initially or in the evaluation sequence. Harms may arise from the preparation the patient undergoes to have the procedure, the sedation used during the procedure, and the procedure itself.”  Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard but it is not perfect. A long, thin tube with a small video camera is snaked through the large intestine to view the lining and any growths are removed.

Defendants in medical monitoring claims will want to assess the state of the art recommendations of bodies such as the USPSTF, as well as the specific literature on the risks of proposed screening tests.