The American Cancer Society estimates that 224,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in the coming year. Some 158,000 people will die from the disease. Those who are successful in their fight against the disease, be it through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or all three, will find medical follow-ups will become a part of their normal routine. After all, should the cancer return, the best way to beat it again is to detect it early so action can be taken rapidly. One test commonly used to track survivors, however, is being overused a new study has found. While highly effective, PET scans are costly and do not improve survival rates over the long haul, researchers say.

PET scans offer clinicians an accurate, in-depth look inside the body. Frequently used to detect cancer and other diseases, these tests are relatively simple, but they are quite costly to perform. In most cases, PET scans are meant to be used after other tests indicate the need for follow-up. Researchers have found that in many cases they are being used as a screen of first resort.

Medicare limits PET scan follow-ups for lung cancer survivors to three. This is not to cut quality of care, rather to control expenses. Since other, less costly tests, can serve as a good first line of defense, the recommendation is to use them first and then follow with a PET scan should red flags exist in the initial test. Researchers have found, however, that in many cases the recommendations are not being followed. A study of more than 100,000 people nationwide with lung or esophageal cancer found that about 22 percent of lung cancer patients had PET scans alone. The number rose to 31 percent for esophageal cancer survivors.

While it is understood patients and their doctors might prefer going to what is perceived as being the best test available first, the move doesn’t improve outcomes, researchers say. The study found that survival rates were no better for people who had PET scans first versus those who were tracked using less costly procedures.

Lung cancer is a serious condition that can sometimes be treated effectively if caught in an early stage. While PET scans are an effective diagnostic tool, their overuse provides no clinical benefits, the study concluded. With that in mind, doctors and their patients are advised to take a less costly path in follow-ups initially and reserve PET scans for only when there is an indicated need.