News Release: Research

Nov. 3,  2009

Some Health Screenings Increase U.S. Health Care Costs, Study Shows

U.S. physicians are more aggressive than their Western European counterparts when it comes to screening for and treating asymptomatic health conditions such as early stage cancer. This approach may explain why U.S. health care costs are much higher when compared to those incurred by European health care systems, according to a study published in the current issue of the journal Health Affairs.

Using data from large, population-wide surveys, Emory University and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers looked at differences in cancer screening rates between the United States and Western European countries.

They found that breast and colon cancer screening rates are more than 40 percent higher in the United States. Study findings also showed that U.S. physicians offered non-recommended screenings at a much higher rate, including the prostate specific-antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer.

In addition, screenings among older U.S. patients surpassed European screening rates, although the benefits associated with early detection are lower in older patients, study authors note. Cancer screening programs in Europe exclude older patients, reflecting the limited benefits in this age group.

Researchers say while costs are higher in the U.S. for some cancer and general health screenings, there are benefits to this approach.

“The results show that not all of the excess spending on health care in the United States is wasteful,” says David H. Howard, PhD, lead study author and associate professor of health policy and management at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. “Some U.S. patients receive beneficial services that they may not have otherwise received in Europe.

“At the same time, there may be opportunities to reduce U.S. health care spending without substantially affecting quality or health by better targeting screening services to patients most likely to benefit,” says Howard.

The findings of this study, “Cancer screening and age in the United States and Europe,” are published in the November/December 2009 issue of Health Affairs and published online at: .

In addition to Howard, researchers include: Lisa C. Richardson of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC; and Kenneth E. Thorpe, PhD, Robert W. Woodruff professor and chair, health policy and management, Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

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