Factors Associated With Low-Value Cancer Screenings in the Veterans Health Administration

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Oct 1;4(10):e2130581. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.30581.


Importance: Most clinical practice guidelines recommend stopping cancer screenings when risks exceed benefits, yet low-value screenings persist. The Veterans Health Administration focuses on improving the value and quality of care, using a patient-centered medical home model that may affect cancer screening behavior.

Objective: To understand rates and factors associated with outpatient low-value cancer screenings.

Design, setting, and participants: This cohort study assessed the receipt of low-value cancer screening and associated factors among 5 993 010 veterans. Four measures of low-value cancer screening defined by validated recommendations of practices to avoid were constructed using administrative data. Patients with cancer screenings in 2017 at Veterans Health Administration primary care clinics were included. Excluded patients had recent symptoms or historic high-risk diagnoses that may affect test appropriateness (eg, melena preceding colonoscopy). Data were analyzed from December 23, 2019, to June 21, 2021.

Exposures: Receipt of cancer screening test.

Main outcomes and measures: Low-value screenings were defined as occurring for average-risk patients outside of guideline-recommended ages or if the 1-year mortality risk estimated using a previously validated score was at least 50%. Factors evaluated in multivariable regression models included patient, clinician, and clinic characteristics and patient-centered medical home domain performance for team-based care, access, and continuity previously developed from administrative and survey data.

Results: Of 5 993 010 veterans (mean [SD] age, 63.1 [16.8] years; 5 496 976 men [91.7%]; 1 027 836 non-Hispanic Black [17.2%] and 4 539 341 non-Hispanic White [75.7%] race and ethnicity) enrolled in primary care, 903 612 of 4 647 479 men of average risk (19.4%) underwent prostate cancer screening; 299 765 of 5 770 622 patients of average risk (5.2%) underwent colorectal cancer screening; 21 930 of 469 045 women of average risk (4.7%) underwent breast cancer screening; and 65 511 of 458 086 women of average risk (14.3%) underwent cervical cancer screening. Of patients screened, low-value testing was rare for 3 cancers, with receipt of a low-value test in 633 of 21 930 of women screened for breast cancer (2.9%), 630 of 65 511 of women screened for cervical cancer (1.0%), and 6790 of 299 765 of patients screened for colorectal cancer (2.3%). However, 350 705 of 4 647 479 of screened men (7.5%) received a low-value prostate cancer test. Patient race and ethnicity, sociodemographic factors, and illness burden were significantly associated with likelihood of receipt of low-value tests among screened patients. No single patient-, clinician-, or clinic-level factor explained the receipt of a low-value test across cancer screening cohorts.

Conclusions and relevance: This large cohort study found that low-value breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer screenings were rare in the Veterans Health Administration, but more than one-third of patients screened for prostate cancer were tested outside of clinical practice guidelines. Guideline-discordant care has quality implications and is not consistently explained by associated multilevel factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / standards*
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • United States
  • United States Department of Veterans Affairs*