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Deaths averted: An unbiased alternative to rate ratios for measuring the performance of cancer screening programs.

INTRODUCTION: Screening trials and meta-analyses emphasize the ratio of cancer death rates in screening and control arms. However, this measure is diluted by the inclusion of deaths from cancers that only became detectable after the end of active screening.

METHODS: We review traditional analysis of cancer screening trials and show that ratio estimates are inevitably biased to the null, because follow-up (FU) must continue beyond the end of the screening period and thus includes cases only becoming detectable after screening ends. But because such cases are expected to occur in equal numbers in the two arms, calculation of the difference between the number of cancer deaths in the screening and control arms avoids this dilutional bias. This difference can be set against the number of invitations to screening; we illustrate by reanalyzing data from all trials of tomography screening of lung cancer (LC) using this measure.

RESULTS: In nine trials of LC screening from 2000 to 2013, a total of 94,441 high-risk patients were invited to be in screening or control groups, with high participation rates (average 95%). In the older trials comparing computed tomography to chest X-ray, 88,285 invitations averted 83 deaths (1068 per death averted (DA)). In the six more recent trials with no screening in the control group, 69,976 invitations averted 121 deaths (577 invitations per DA).

DISCUSSION: Screens per DA is an undiluted measure of screening's effect and it is unperturbed by the arbitrary duration of FU. This estimate can be useful for program planning and informed consent.

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