Quality of Cancer Surveillance Clinical Practice Guidelines: Specificity and Consistency of Recommendations

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Primary care clinicians, who are increasingly responsible for caring for the growing population of cancer survivors, may be unfamiliar with appropriate cancer surveillance strategies. Clinical practice guidelines can inform cancer follow-up care and surveillance testing. Vague recommendations and inconsistencies among guidelines can lead to overuse and underuse of health care resources and have a negative impact on cost and quality of survivorship care.


To examine the specificity and consistency of recommendations for surveillance after active treatment across cancer guidelines.

Design, Setting, and Participants

Retrospective cross-sectional analysis of national cancer guidelines from North America and Europe published since 2010 addressing posttreatment care for survivors of the 9 most common cancers. We categorized surveillance modalities into history and physical examinations, tumor markers, diagnostic procedures (eg, colonoscopy), and imaging. Within each guideline, we classified individual recommendations into 5 categories: (1) risk-based recommendation, (2) recommendation for surveillance, (3) addressed but no clear recommendation, (4) recommendation against surveillance, or (5) cases in which surveillance was not addressed. We reviewed each surveillance recommendation for frequency and a stop date, evaluated consistency among guidelines, and analyzed associations between the organizations proposing the guidelines and recommendation characteristics.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Description of guideline recommendations for cancer surveillance.


We identified 41 guidelines published between January 1, 2010, and March 1, 2016. Eighty-five percent of guidelines (35) were from professional organizations. Ambiguous recommendations (ie, modality not discussed or discussed without a clear recommendation) were present in 83% of guidelines (34), and 44% (18) recommended against at least 1 test. European guidelines were more likely than North American guidelines to contain ambiguous recommendations (100% vs 68%; P < .01). Recommendations commonly specified testing frequency (from 88% [14 of 16] for tumor markers to 92% [24 of 26] for procedures and/or imaging) but infrequently provided a definitive stop time. Cross-sectional imaging recommendations varied among guidelines for each cancer. For example, among breast cancer guidelines, surveillance computed tomographic scans were recommended against in 2, discussed without a clear recommendation in 1, and not addressed in 3 guidelines.

Conclusions and Relevance

Guidelines addressing the care of cancer survivors have low specificity and consistency. As guidelines continue to be revised, developers should clarify recommendations with simple, nonambiguous, definitive language for or against the use of specific tests to optimize care quality and resource utilization.

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