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Posts Tagged ‘Ministry of Health’

PROSTABLOG NZ: Exact meaning of the word “encourage” will be pivotal  in the continuing New Zealand saga on how best to prevent prostate cancer.

“We will be encouraging men to go to their GPs to discuss optionsincluding whether or not they should have a PSA test,” says the chairman of Parliament’s inquiry into prostate cancer, Paul Hutchison, in today’s Dominion Post newspaper (see below).

In the same story, his statement is welcomed by Prostate Cancer Foundation of NZ president Mark von Dadelszen: “…we would certainly applaud that move.”

What they both mean by the term “encourage” is about to become the focus of a debate that has churned around in global prostate cancer politics since PSA testing became commonly available in the early 1990s.

First question: how does “encouraging” men to be tested differ from a national screening programme (which Hutchison signals will be rejected in the inquiry report due in a matter of weeks)?

A national screening programme presumably involves the Ministry of Health spending millions promoting tests to the general populace, as it does with breast and cervical cancers.

Such programmes “encourage” people to get along to their doctor and have the tests.

How will men be encouraged? Not with a lot of advertising, it seems.

So how, exactly?

By training barbers to spread the word to their clients, as has been tried in the US?

By sending doctors into communities to talk about risks and options, as the Foundation did last year when it flew a team to the Chathams?

By leaving it to the Foundation to publicise the disease and urge men to act, as happens now?

Whatever approach the Health Select Committee is about to recommend, it needs to deal with a mammoth in the waiting rooms – the Ministry of Health instruction to GPs that they must not raise the topic of PSA and rectal examination until the patient does or unless they spot symptoms obviously related to what is often a symptomless disease.

This is the real crux of the dilemma the Select Committee has presumably been wrangling with since its first public hearings in September, 2009.

What instruction will it recommend the Government give to the Ministry, whose staff and advisers  adamantly oppose any widening of the availability of PSA testing?

Up to now, men have been the subject of a mild but just as deadly form of Russian roulette when it comes to being diagnosed.

Take my own case.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve been under the care of four GPs. The first never mentioned prostate cancer (to be fair, I was under 50); the second (mid 1990s) refused to consider PSA tests because to him they were unproven; the third insisted on it without my bidding; and my current one responded readily to my request for tests (saying Ministry instructions forbade him raising the matter unless I spoke up first!).

Anecdotal evidence suggests the Ministry’s obfuscation is becoming increasingly irrelevant – for some people, anyway.

The Foundation’s awareness campaigns have been effective, if I judge by the number of male acquaintances now being diagnosed early and successfully treated.

However, I suspect there are dangerous class factors at play here.

Me and my mates are okay because we have been blessed by education, higher socio-economic status, media awareness and access to health provision.

I fear for those who don’t. The Ministry’s stubbornness condemns them to an uncertain fate.

National prostate screening rejected

Dominion Post April 2, 2011

A PARLIAMENTARY inquiry into prostate cancer screening will not be recommending a national screening programme despite pressure from cancer survivors to do so.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation has backed the committee’s approach, but a former patient says the decision is disappointing.

Health select committee chairman Paul Hutchison said the inquiry, which has been running since May 2009, was not due to report back for another few weeks, but when it did, it would not advocate screening.

There was still controversy over whether blood tests for prostate-specific antigens led to fewer prostate cancer deaths, he said.

Heightened levels of prostate specific antigen – PSA – can indicate the presence of prostate cancer. However, early detection can result in aggressive and unpleasant treatment of tumours that would never have grown or created ill-health.

The inquiry has heard from a huge number of prostate cancer survivors, many of whom asked for a screening programme for all men aged 50 and older.

Dr Hutchison could not go into detail about the committee’s findings but said there were two main conclusions.

‘‘We will not be recommending a PSA screening programme. However, we will be encouraging men to go to their GPs to discuss options … including whether or not they should have a PSA test.

‘‘Those are the two points that are loud and clear.’’

Prostate Cancer Foundation president Mark von Dadelszen said the organisation did not support a national screening programme because of ‘‘issues’’ with the PSA test.

‘What it does advocate is that men should be encouraged to have screening tests . . . we would certainly applaud that move.’’

Napier farmer Duncan McLean, who has just got the all-clear five years after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, said encouragement was good but the committee should recommend a full screening programme.

Mr McLean, 57, had his prostate gland removed in 2006 after several years of increasingly high PSA readings, followed by a biopsy that confirmed the cancer.

‘‘PSA testing is essential. I’m alive today because of it. It’s really disappointing they’re not [recommending screening].’’

Fears about over-treatment were ‘‘bollocks’’, he said. ‘‘You don’t leap in and go under the surgeon’s knife – I was monitored for three years before I had surgery.’’

International research on the matter is split, with several largescale studies under way.

The results of a 20-year Swedish study, published yesterday in the British Medical Journal, found screening did not significantly reduce prostate cancer deaths but the risk of overdetection and unnecessary treatment was considerable.

However, another Swedish study found death from prostate cancer more than halved among men who were screened.

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PROSTABLOG NZ:  HERE are four key issues the NZ Parliamentary inquiry into the detection and treatment of prostate cancer ought now to be focusing on:

  • Mass screening…or not: Not. The evidence in favour of mass screening of all middle-aged men for prostate cancer is not sufficiently strong in statistical terms to overcome the counter-arguments concerning needless and over-treatment and high likelihood of after effects that will blight quality of life.

But…it’s not strong enough yet. That may change as more studies are done and closer analysis of the large random trials is completed. PSA testing may also improve, or be replaced with something better, a test that defines the actual risk to the patient.

  • Guidelines to GPs must be revised. Currently, GPs are forbidden by the Ministry of Health to routinely offer PSA tests and/or rectal examinations for prostate cancer unless a man asks, or mentions symptoms. Since this can be a symptomless disease (until it’s too late), that is unacceptable. It also presumes that people don’t move around, change doctors, lose track of medical records, or simply have little idea of the implications of dad dying of prostate cancer.

If the Ministry of Health wants to avoid high-risk treatment being offered unnecessarily, it needs to move the initial gatekeeping further up the food chain to the specialists.

  • Specialists’ advice needs to be delivered via a more balanced and less costly method. At present, the system works well enough up to the point the pathologist finds signs of cancer in biopsy samples.

But after that, men are left to fend for themselves when it comes to seeking advice from a range of authorities. Some don’t bother, and just go with what the urologist offers. Some can’t afford the $1600 charged by a cancer specialist (oncologist), who may be the most neutral source of advice available.

In the US, the first specialists in the hierarchy, urologists, earned themselves the unenviable moniker of “prostate snatchers” because of the lucrative, medical insurance-backed business of prostate surgery.

How about panels of doctors representing the main treatment options in NZ (surgery, robotic surgery, external beam radiation, brachytherapy, watchful waiting) reviewing the case notes and offering clearly explained options to patients?

  • The public needs to be kept up to date – in layman’s terms – with diagnostic and treatment developments. This is not happening at present. The Ministry and its satellite committees do not have readily available, up-to-date information on the web to help men with newly diagnosed prostate cancer become fully informed before making one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

As wealthy male baby boomers hit the danger zone, enormous amounts of US, European and Asian money are going into researching and developing new drugs, methods of surgery and radiation, diagnostic tools and a bewildering range of related methdologies.

That’s the point – it’s bewildering to the average Kiwi, who must hope his medics are keeping up to date and that the government is adequately funding new treatments.

For example, there is Provenge, a new $100,000+ drug regime that will extend life for a few months, and which is now selling big in the US. When will we see it here?

Communicating the relevance of the overseas prostate industry boom to Kiwis cannot be left solely to the news media here: that’s worse than leaving it to chance and the public relations industry.

Few, if any, journalists in NZ take an abiding interest in prostate cancer (why would they – it’s one of many diseases), and what they do write is sometimes ill-informed, incomplete, inaccurate and out of date.

Finally, the Health Select Committee would be wise to keep its files open on this inquiry. It would be a mistake to shut the doors on a tsunami of prostate cancer information that emerges daily on the web.

Developments are moving so quickly, the committee should require the Ministry of Health to report regularly about what’s happening. The inquiry report, when it finally emerges, should be an interim one that can be updated over time.

The committee is wrestling with questions that are far from settled.

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PROSTABLOG NZ: It’s almost a year since the first hearings were held by the NZ Parliament’s Health Select Committee inquiry into the early detection and treatment of prostate cancer.

The obvious question now is when will it report back.

Since it published its terms of reference in August last year, the committee has received 33 submissions, four of them from the influential health lobby group, the NZ Guidelines Group, whose last submission was made in December.

This document made it clear that the group – an independent incorporated society originally set up by the government in 1996 – is opposed to population-based PSA screening.

To save one life, up to 41 men could incur significant harm.

It bases this view on its assessment of numerous NZ and international studies, including two large randomised trials (one European, the other American) that were reported last year.

Here are some of the last pages of the group’s December, 2009, submission (RCT = random controlled trial):

This also appears to be the main thrust of submissions on PSA testing from other health authorities (although the Guidelines Group is at pains to stress it is independent from the Ministry of Health).

Another “official” organisation, the National Health Committee, said in its submission (August 26, 2009) that it has seen nothing to change its 2005 advice to the MOH that population-based PSA screening is not an acceptable option.

However, it did favour targeted screening of high-risk groups, such as men with a family history of prostate cancer.

The NHC is aware that since providing its advice in 2005, clinical practice has found
that targeted screening for men at high risk of prostate cancer appears to be useful
and potentially cost effective. These are men who have a family history of prostate
or related cancers.

The Royal NZ College of General Practitioners – presumably speaking on behalf of doctors on the frontline – said in its submission it would go along with the NZ Guidelines Group’s views.

It did make a couple of pleas, however, calling for up-to-date information to hand out to patients, and for treatment to be available to all:

It is important that inequities in access relating to follow up after positive
screening results, and for symptomatic men, are identified and eliminated.

The Cancer Society agreed with the Guidelines Group, and backed this up by quoting from selected organisations in other Western countries.

Most agencies around the world have some form of recommendation that decisions for screening for prostate cancer should be made on an individual basis and in consultation with a medical professional:

The Australian Cancer Council states that:
“In the absence of direct evidence showing a clear benefit of population based screening for prostate cancer, a patient centred approach for individual decisions about testing is recommended. Screening discussions and decisions should always include and take into account, age and other individual risk
factors such as a family history of the disease” (Cancer Council Au 2005).

The American Cancer Society states that:
“The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not recommend routine testing for prostate cancer at this time. ACS believes that doctors should discuss the pros and cons of testing with men so each man can decide if testing is right for him. If a man chooses to be tested, the tests should include a PSA blood test and
DRE (digital rectal exam) yearly, beginning at age 50, for men at average risk who can be expected to live at least 10 more years.” (American Cancer Society 2009).

The UK Cancer Research Council states:
“in the UK, there is no national screening programme for prostate cancer because trials have not yet shown clear evidence that screening will reduce deaths from this disease. Also, many men diagnosed with
prostate cancer have very slowly growing cancers that will never cause any symptoms or problems in their lifetime. So at the moment there is no clear benefit in diagnosing prostate cancer early and it may actually cause harm for some men.”(Cancer Research UK 2009).

Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand states:
“Individual men aged 50 to 70 years with at least a 10 year life expectancy should be able to be screened by annual DRE and PSA testing, after appropriate counselling regarding the potential risks and benefits of investigations and the controversies of treatment.”(Urological Society ANZ 1999).

The majority of submissions – from prominent medical practitioners, prostate cancer lobby groups and patients – urged the committee to recommend PSA testing, if not on a population (all men) screening basis, then at least as a service offered routinely by GPs, without men having to ask (the current MOH policy).

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NEW PROSTATE CANCER INFOLINK: How badly flawed was the US long-term randomised study of PSA testing, the one now being used by our Ministry of Health as one reason to reject PSA testing?

Very badly flawed, according to a new study. READ MORE>

It is well-understood that a problem with the data from the PLCO screening trial was that many men in the “control” (supposedly non-screened) arm of the trial did in fact get PSA testing and have digital rectal examinations during the time period of the trial (albeit outside the trial protocol and not at the trial centers).

But how bad was that “contamination” of the trial data? A new report by Pinsky et al. suggests that it was probably pretty bad.

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PROSTABLOG: When can we expect a report from the NZ parliamentary inquiry into the early detection and treatment of prostate cancer, which was launched a little over a year ago?

No word on that from the committee, but perhaps two of the most powerful “words” in the debate on screening were submitted to the committee just before last Christmas (unreported in the news media, so far as I can tell).

They came from eminent pro-screening urologist Robin Smart and from the Ministry of Health’s expert panel, the NZ Guidelines Group, which has been strongly anti-screening (population-based).

Here’s a couple of quotes from Smart’s submission, which discussed the inconclusive results of the two large international screening trials published in March last year:

The conclusion is that it is now very difficult if not impossible to conduct trials of controls having no testing versus screened having PSA/DRE (PSA tests/digital rectal examinations) testing with endpoints of death or metastases in advanced countries especially the United States.

This is largely due to the international improvements in these aspects because of PSA/DRE testing and consequent reluctance of men to remain in control groups.

This in turn means that it is going to continue to be difficult for authorities and governments responsible for making decisions concerning setting up national prostate cancer screening programmes who are waiting for more information before doing so.

These decisions will have to be made largely on current information from existing trials, studies and experience…

The weight of evidence in favour of PSA/DRE testing is now irrefutable after almost two decades of international experience.

To go back to the time before PSA testing would now be unthinkable.

Of course we hope for the perfect tests, perfect treatment and continue to look for improvements. But men today need the benefit of current technology which the evidence shows is saving between a third to a half of those who would otherwise die of prostate cancer where it is applied.

In its final submission (dated the same day as Smart’s, December 16), the guidelines group gave a contrary view.

It looked at nearly 10,000 research abstracts and chose 166 it says were relevant to the brief given to it by the Ministry of Health.

Its analysis concluded that the potential harm from population-based screening outweighs benefits.

The best case scenario it could find estimated that a screening programme conducted on all men aged 50 to 74 for nine years would save about 40 lives a year (from the 600 who die from the disease in NZ each year).

Those 360 lives saved over nearly a decade had to be weighed against the following “harm” that could be done:

  • An estimated 41 men would suffer significant treatment complications for every one life saved.
  • Of the additional 1953 men per year requiring prostate cancer treatment (presumably on top of the 2500 now), 43% to 88% would have sexual dysfunction, 10% to 35% urinary dysfunction and 8% to 43% bowel dysfunction (the range depending on whose research is consulted)
  • Each year, there would be the following additional complications – 838 to 1677 cases of sexual dysfunction; 156 to 838 cases of bowel dysfunction; and 195 to 682 cases of urinary dysfunction.

Meantime, international debate on screening continues.

HERE> is a report on a pro v con panel discussion at the recent American Urological Association annual conference.

And, Mike Scott, sitemaster of the New Prostate Cancer Info-Link in the US, says he agrees with an April article in the Australian Medical Journal that said population-based screening (that is, screening of all men) cannot be sanctioned until something more accurate than the PSA test is developed. READ MORE>

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PROSTABLOG NZ: Rates of prostate cancer detected in NZ are expected to rise about 23% in the decade leading up to 2016, moving from 91 cases per 100,000 to 112.

That’s the finding of a Ministry of Health cancer projection report released late last month, but only just picked up by news media (none of whom looked in detail at prostate cancer).

Something the report calls the “burden of new cases” is expected to increase by 71% over the 2006-2016 period. This term is not explained (for the uninitiated).

Interpreting the report is something of a challenge.

The Ministry’s researchers have chosen to single out prostate cancer projections as the only ones that “could not be updated  (although they have been extended), as these are based only on data up to 1984-88″.

The reason given is something they dub the “PSA effect”.

It’s hard to be sure, but this apparently means that because of a sudden upsurge of PSA testing in the late 1980s and early 1990s – leading to perhaps half of the Kiwi aged male population getting tested – there has been a massive blip in the detection statistics.

A half generation of men who would otherwise have not been detected until symptoms showed at an older age have been diagnosed “early”.

This has distorted trends to such an extent, it seems, the projection models can’t cope.

Graphs from the report, reproduced here, show the “bulge” effect. In the bottom one, the solid lines showing rates up to 2006 are extrapolated out (dotted lines) from 1986, ignoring what really happened because of PSA testing:

The Ministry says until rates return to what would have been expected “pre-PSA”, it cannot provide reliable predictions.

Despite that constraint, it has a go anyway: it concludes the rate of prostate cancer will continue to rise (presumably because of the baby boomer bulge moving through).

Confused? Join the club.

Why is prostate cancer being dealt with differently from other cancers that have been the subject of widespread screening and marketing campaigns, such as breast and cervical?

Is it because those screening campaigns were Ministry-approved, while PSA is frowned on by the Ministry because it leads to a problem – once prostate cancer is found there is no reliable way to know if it needs treatment, leading to possible over-treatment, and with it, unnecessary cost on the health system.

It would be useful to hear from epidemiologists on this, despite their inherent bias against PSA testing casting doubt on their views.

Still, they might help unravel the technicalities of the Ministry’s convoluted explanation.

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PROSTABLOG NZ: Not surprisingly, NZ urologists – the doctors who operate on prostate cancer patients – are more circumspect than the country’s health bureaucrats when it comes to assessing the value of PSA and digital tests.

That became obvious at this week’s hearings by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee inquiry into prostate cancer detection and treatment.

A submission by the Urological Society of Australia and NZ takes a more balanced view of testing than those allied to the Ministry of Health, who gave their evidence last month and expressed strong opposition.

The society says, in essence, that PSA tests and digital exams aren’t foolproof, but if used judiciously – that is, in conjunction with other diagnostic methods and with proper consultation with patients – they undoubtedly save lives.

Along with many overseas groups, they urge more research to find better markers, and particularly recommend the development of protocols to enhance the option of active surveillance.

READ full submission here>

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PROSTABLOG NZ: The survival rate for prostate cancer patients in NZ increased more than 12% in the seven years to 2006, according to the Ministry of Health. READ MORE>

The prostate cancer survival gain is the best of five major cancer sites (prostate, breast, coloectal, cervical and lung), says the Ministry’s annual report released this week.

Maori continue to show poor results.

On cancer survival, the report says:

Cancer survival is a key outcome measure of cancer control and provides useful insights into the effectiveness of health care in detecting and treating cancer. Five-year cancer survival rates are a direct measure of the effectiveness of the health system in treating cancer.

The five-year relative survival rate has increased for all five major cancer sites.

This increase was in the region of 5–6 percent for colorectal, breast and cervical cancers and over 12 percent for prostate cancer in the seven years since 1997/98.

The survival rate for lung cancer is significantly less than for other cancer sites and has improved the least.

Survival graph

Ethnic minorities

Five-year relative survival rates show Maori at a marked disadvantage compared with the non-Maori/non-Pacific ethnic group for five selected cancer sites.

Of all ethnic groups, Pacific people show the lowest relative survival rates for female breast and cervical cancers.

Efforts to increase the number of Pacific women being screened through cancer screening programmes should help to identify greater numbers of women in need of cancer treatment in the future.

Maori survival

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PROSTABLOG NZ: While the NZ prostate community is mounting its latest bid to have a publicly funded awareness campaign, the Ministry of Health has today published its latest guidelines on the treatment of breast cancer. READ MORE>

It includes this passage:

Between December 1998 and June 2004, the New Zealand breast cancer screening programme – BreastScreen Aotearoa – offered publicly funded mammography to all New Zealand women without symptoms of breast disease aged 50 to 64 years, with the aim of reducing mortality from breast cancer.

From 1 July 2004, women aged 45 to 49 years and 65 to 69 years also became eligible for publicly funded mammography.

One of the essential requirements of an effective screening programme is that women who have cancers
detected subsequently receive optimal treatment.

This guideline has been developed to help ensure practitioners are aware of and implement optimal evidence-based treatments.

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mohPROSTABLOG NZ: Maori and Pacific people living in NZ suffer big disparities in the way cancer is detected and treated, and how well they survive it. READ MORE>

This has been known for some time, but the problem is newly highlighted in the Ministry of Health-funded cancer guidelines for GPs that have just been released.

For example, it reminds us that as many as 17% of Maori cancer cases and 6% of deaths are never reported.

It also points out that health statistics tend to be five years old before they are published, which suggests that in the rapidly changing detection/treatment environment for prostate cancer, decision-making on how best to screen and treat is seriously hampered by lack of knowledge.

While the overall, 174-page report, avoids discussion of population-based screening, it does touch on the issue in the ethnicity section:

Cormack et al. noted that national screening programme data have identified that equitable screening for breast and cervical cancer has not been achieved for Mäori women.

However, BreastScreen South Limited’s results (70% of eligible Mäori women screened in 2005) suggest that the inclusion of focused efforts and leadership are the key to achieving equity in screening.

The report analyses available data on ethnic disparities in cancer detection and treatment, and makes a number of suggestions, including more “cultural competence” training for health workers.

For the full report, CLICK HERE>

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