Screening for skin cancer

Am J Prev Med. 2001 Apr;20(3 Suppl):47-58. doi: 10.1016/s0749-3797(01)00258-6.


Context: Malignant melanoma is often lethal, and its incidence in the United States has increased rapidly over the past 2 decades. Nonmelanoma skin cancer is seldom lethal, but, if advanced, can cause severe disfigurement and morbidity. Early detection and treatment of melanoma might reduce mortality, while early detection and treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancer might prevent major disfigurement and to a lesser extent prevent mortality. Current recommendations from professional societies regarding screening for skin cancer vary.

Objective: To examine published data on the effectiveness of routine screening for skin cancer by a primary care provider, as part of an assessment for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Data sources: We searched the MEDLINE database for papers published between 1994 and June 1999, using search terms for screening, physical examination, morbidity, and skin neoplasms. For information on accuracy of screening tests, we used the search terms sensitivity and specificity. We identified the most important studies from before 1994 from the Guide to Clinical Preventive Services, second edition, and from high-quality reviews. We used reference lists and expert recommendations to locate additional articles.

Study selection: Two reviewers independently reviewed a subset of 500 abstracts. Once consistency was established, the remainder were reviewed by one reviewer. We included studies if they contained data on yield of screening, screening tests, risk factors, risk assessment, effectiveness of early detection, or cost effectiveness.

Data extraction: We abstracted the following descriptive information from full-text published studies of screening and recorded it in an electronic database: type of screening study, study design, setting, population, patient recruitment, screening test description, examiner, advertising targeted at high-risk groups or not targeted, reported risk factors of participants, and procedure for referrals. We also abstracted the yield of screening data including probabilities and numbers of referrals, types of suspected skin cancers, biopsies, confirmed skin cancers, and stages and thickness of skin cancers. For studies that reported test performance, we recorded the definition of a suspicious lesion, the "gold-standard" determination of disease, and the number of true positive, false positive, true negative, and false negative test results. When possible, positive predictive values, likelihood ratios, sensitivity, and specificity were recorded.

Data synthesis: No randomized or case-control studies have been done that demonstrate that routine screening for melanoma by primary care providers reduces morbidity or mortality. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are very common, but detection and treatment in the absence of formal screening are almost always curative. No controlled studies have shown that formal screening programs will improve this already high cure rate. While the efficacy of screening has not been established, the screening procedures themselves are noninvasive, and the follow-up test, skin biopsy, has low morbidity. Five studies from mass screening programs reported the accuracy of skin examination as a screening test. One of these, a prospective study, tracked patients with negative results to determine the number of patients with false-negative results. In this study, the sensitivity of screening for skin cancer was 94% and specificity was 98%. Several recent case-control studies confirm earlier evidence that risk of melanoma rises with the presence of atypical moles and/or many common moles. One well-done prospective study demonstrated that risk assessment by limited physical exam identified a relatively small (<10%) group of primary care patients for more thorough evaluation.

Conclusions: The quality of the evidence addressing the accuracy of routine screening by primary care providers for early detection of melanoma or nonmelanoma skin cancer ranged from poor to fair. We found no studies that assessed the effectiveness of periodic skin examination by a clinician in reducing melanoma mortality. Both self-assessment of risk factors or clinician examination can classify a small proportion of patients as at highest risk for melanoma. Skin cancer screening, perhaps using a risk-assessment technique to identify high-risk patients who are seeing a physician for other reasons, merits additional study as a strategy to address the excess burden of disease in older adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Basal Cell / prevention & control*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / prevention & control*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening*
  • Melanoma / prevention & control*
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Primary Health Care
  • Skin Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • United States