Evaluation of the digital rectal examination as a screening test for prostate cancer. Rotterdam section of the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1998 Dec 2;90(23):1817-23. doi: 10.1093/jnci/90.23.1817.


Background: The utility of digital rectal examination (DRE) as a screening test for early detection of prostate cancer has not been established. Therefore, we evaluated the usefulness of DRE as a stand-alone screening test and in conjunction with measured serum prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels of 0-3.9 ng/mL and transrectal ultrasonography (TRUS).

Methods: Our study population consisted of 10,523 men aged 54-76 years who were randomly assigned to the screening arm of the Rotterdam, The Netherlands, section of the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer. The underlying prevalence of detectable prostate cancer was estimated by logistic regression analysis and used for calculating the sensitivity of DRE as a test. Pathologic characteristics of 105 radical prostatectomy specimens were used to determine the aggressiveness of the tumors diagnosed (and missed) by DRE.

Results: The overall detection rate for prostate cancer in this population when serum PSA measurement, DRE, and TRUS were used was 4.5%, and the detection rate with DRE alone was 2.5%. The positive predictive value of DRE ranged from 4% to 11% in men with PSA levels of 0-2.9 ng/mL and from 33% to 83% in men with PSA levels of 3.0-9.9 ng/mL or more. Most tumors detected by DRE in men with PSA levels of less than 4.0 ng/mL were small (mean volumes = 0.24-0.83 mL), and most were well differentiated (Gleason scores of 6 or less). Minimal, moderate, and advanced cancers were seen in 42%, 42%, and 16% of men, respectively, with a PSA level of 4.0 ng/mL or less. DRE alone allowed detection of 264 (55.8%) of 473 cancers; 82 (17.3%) of the 473 cancers would have remained undetected by PSA-based screening alone (i.e., no follow-up procedures for PSA values of 0-3.9 ng/mL).

Conclusions: For PSA values of 0-3.9 ng/mL, the positive predictive value and sensitivity of DRE, tumor volume, and tumor grade were strongly dependent on PSA level. DRE has a poor performance in low PSA ranges.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands
  • Palpation*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prostate-Specific Antigen / blood
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / immunology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Rectum* / diagnostic imaging
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography / methods


  • Prostate-Specific Antigen