Getting screened for colon cancer has become a rite of passage in American life. Starting at age 50, the reminders start coming from friends, family, and medical providers.
To be sure, failure to diagnose cancer is a serious matter. But recent data from a healthcare task force suggests that many older people are going in for repeat tests that aren't really needed.
The study was conducted by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. It showed that nearly half of the Medicare patients had undergone a repeat colonoscopy within seven years of an earlier normal test. For those over 80, fully one-third had already had the exam within the previous seven years.
The problem with this excessive testing is that is poses significant health risks to older people - particularly those 76 and older.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended against the routine colonoscopies for most people from 76 to 85. And the task force says that those over 85 should not have any more screenings because the procedure's risks outweigh the potential benefits.
Colonoscopy screening involves using a thin tube to probe the intestines. For people in these older groups, the risks from this procedure can include perforation of the colon, bleeding, and problems related to sedation.
Healthcare providers need to do a better job of distinguishing between patients at high risk of colon cancer and patients who are not. Performing this invasive screening on older people who don't really need it puts older people at risk of health complications caused by the procedure.
Source: "Study: Many seniors getting unnecessary colonoscopies," MPR News, 5-9-11