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Am Fam Physician. 2004;70(5):817-821

to the editor: As a family physician who is very interested in partaking in shared decisions with my patients, I always look forward to the patient education handouts from the American Academy of Family Physicians printed in American Family Physician. I find that these handouts empower patients to take an active role in their own health care.

However, in the February 1, 2004, issue, the patient education handout1 about prostate cancer misquoted the recommendations of the American Cancer Society. The handout1 stated, “The American Cancer Society recommends [prostate-specific antigen test] for all men older than 50 years.” In fact, this was the original recommendation before more was known about the risks and benefits of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. The current American Cancer Society2 guideline, which is quite similar to the American Academy of Family Physician’s guideline, recommends that: “the PSA test and the [digital rectal examination] should be offered annually beginning at age 50 to men who have a life expectancy of at least 10 years. Men at high risk should begin testing at age 45. Information should be provided to patients about benefits and limitations of testing. Specifically, prior to testing, men should have an opportunity to learn about the benefits and limitations of testing, for early prostate cancer detection and treatment.”2

The American Cancer Society Web site ( has further information on the uncertainty of PSA testing. The Web site states: “Health care professionals should give men the opportunity to openly discuss the benefits and risks of testing at annual checkups. Men should actively participate in the decision by learning about prostate cancer and the pros and cons of early detection and treatment of prostate cancer.”3 It adds that, “Studies are underway to try to prove that early detection tests for prostate cancer in large groups of men will lower the prostate cancer death rate. Until that information is available, whether you have the test is something for you and your doctor to decide.”3

It is important for physicians to realize that we do not always have the answers and, because of that, we need to actively involve our patients in making decisions, especially in areas of uncertainty. As a 35-year-old man, I would no more believe to know what is best for a 53-year-old woman regarding hormone therapy than I would for a 53-year-old man regarding prostate cancer screening. Instead, family physicians need to follow the evidence, the national guidelines, and common sense, and relay to our patients the risks and benefits to help them make decisions that are in their best interest.

editor’s note: We appreciate Dr. Merenstein’s bringing our attention to this important distinction. We would like to emphasize that the American Cancer Society now only recommends offering the prostate-specific antigen test annually to men over age 50 who are expected to live another 10 years, after informing the patient of the limitations and benefits of the test. The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and the American Academy of Family Physicians now share a similar position on prostate cancer screening and the importance of a discussion between a patient and his physician before screening routinely. The wording in the patient education handout has been clarified on the American Family Physician Web site (

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This series is coordinated by Kenny Lin, MD, MPH, deputy editor.

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