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Guidelines from the NCCN® (National Comprehensive Cancer Network®) advocate digital rectal examination screening only in men with elevated prostate specific antigen. We investigated the effect of prostate specific antigen on the association of digital rectal examination and clinically significant prostate cancer in a large American cohort.We evaluated the records of the 35,350 men who underwent digital rectal examination in the screening arm of the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening trial for the development of clinically significant prostate cancer (Gleason 7 or greater). Followup was 343,273 person-years. The primary outcome was the rate of clinically significant prostate cancer among men with vs without suspicious digital rectal examination. We performed competing risks regression to evaluate the interaction between time varying suspicious digital rectal examination and prostate specific antigen.A total of 1,713 clinically significant prostate cancers were detected with a 10-year cumulative incidence of 5.9% (95% CI 5.6–6.2). Higher risk was seen for suspicious vs nonsuspicious digital rectal examination. Increases in absolute risk were small and clinically irrelevant for normal (less than 2 ng/ml) prostate specific antigen (1.5% vs 0.7% risk of clinically significant prostate cancer at 10 years), clinically relevant for elevated (3 ng/ml or greater) prostate specific antigen (23.0% vs 13.7%) and modestly clinically relevant for equivocal (2 to 3 ng/ml) prostate specific antigen (6.5% vs 3.5%).Digital rectal examination demonstrated prognostic usefulness when prostate specific antigen was greater than 3 ng/ml, limited usefulness for less than 2 ng/ml and marginal usefulness for 2 to 3 ng/ml. These findings support the restriction of digital rectal examination to men with higher prostate specific antigen as a reflex test to improve specificity. It should not be used as a primary screening modality to improve sensitivity.