What influences family physicians' cancer screening decisions when practice guidelines are unclear or conflicting?

J Fam Pract. 2002 Sep;51(9):760.


Objectives: To determine (a) the respondents' perceptions of 4 unclear or conflicting cancer screening guidelines: prostate-specific antigen (PSA) for men over 50, mammography for women 40-49, colorectal screening by fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), and colonoscopy for patients over 40; and (b) the influence of various factors on the decision to order these tests.

Study design: National Canadian mail survey of randomly selected family physicians.

Population: Family physicians in active practice (n=565) selected from rural and urban family medicine sites in 5 provinces representing the main regions in Canada.

Outcome measured: Agreement with guideline statements, and decision to order screening test in 6 clinical vignettes.

Results: Of 565 surveys mailed, 351 (62.1%) were returned. Most respondents agreed with the Canadian Task Force recommendations, and most believed that various guidelines for 3 of the 4 screens were conflicting (PSA 86.6%; mammography 67.5%; FOBT 62.4%). Patient anxiety about cancer, patient expectations of being tested, and a positive family history of cancer increased the odds that the 4 tests would be ordered. A good quality patient-MD relationship decreased the odds of ordering a mammogram. Screening decisions were also significantly influenced by the respondents' beliefs about whether screening was recommended and whether screening could cause more harm than good. A physician's sensitivity to his or her colleagues' practice influenced screening decisions regarding PSA and mammography.

Conclusions: These results suggest a conceptual framework for understanding the determinants of screening behavior when guidelines are unclear or conflicting.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Canada
  • Colonoscopy
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Family Practice / standards*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Mammography / statistics & numerical data
  • Mass Screening / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prostate-Specific Antigen
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Prostate-Specific Antigen