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Digital rectal examination for prostate cancer by GPs 'unnecessary', finds study

GPs should urgently refer patients with prostate cancer symptoms regardless of their digital rectal examination results, a new study has suggested.

Researchers from Hull York Medical School found that many men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not have an abnormal DRE result, so concluded that performing the examination in primary care is 'unnecessary' and may even delay diagnosis by deterring some men with symptoms from seeking medical help.

The systematic review, published in BMC Family Practice, found that patients with symptoms who have a normal result upon the physical check still have a 15.8% risk of cancer, well above the 3% risk threshold suggested by NICE for an urgent referral.

GP leaders called for more research to support the ‘interesting’ findings, before any changes to current recommendations for digital rectal examinations.

The research team set out to determine the accuracy of rectal examinations for prostate cancer diagnosis, in patients presenting to their GP with symptoms.

The review included four studies from 2015 which passed the quality assessment scale. A total of 3,225 patients were included, with the age of patients ranging from 40 to 89 years.

The research team, led by the dean of Hull York Medical School Professor Una Macleod, a practicing GP, looked at the sensitivity and specificity of the examination, as well as the cost-effectiveness and adverse effects.

They found that while DRE performed in general practice is accurate, 'many patients diagnosed with prostate cancer do not have an abnormal DRE'.

The paper said: 'Symptomatic patients who present to primary care and have a normal prostate examination still have a risk of cancer of 15.8%, which above the 3% risk threshold suggested by NICE...

‘DRE performed in primary care is an unnecessary investigation, adding little to the decision to refer, which should be made on the basis of symptoms alone.'

It added: 'This review questions the benefit of performing a DRE in primary care in the first instance, suggesting that a patient’s risk of prostate cancer based on symptoms alone would warrant urgent referral even if the DRE feels normal.'

The researchers also suggested that 'DRE may deter some men from seeking medical help for symptoms suggestive of prostate cancer...performing DRE in primary may in fact be delaying the diagnosis of prostate cancer'.

The University of Hertfordshire's Professor Mike Kirby, a former GP with a special interest in men's health, said: ‘A normal DRE of course does not exclude prostate cancer, but failing to do one misses the opportunity to diagnose locally advanced disease, and prioritise the referral, but also pick up other pathologies such as prostatitis, BPH, rectal tumours.’

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘This review certainly presents some interesting ideas…Improving rates of early diagnosis of prostate cancer is hugely important, but more research is needed before there is a change to the current recommendations about when to carry out a digital rectal examination.’

She added that it is ‘essential’ that for any updates to clinical guidelines, which are used by GPs to inform their diagnosis and treatment plans, that a ‘variety of the most current medical research and evidence’ is considered.

The findings come after Prime Minister Theresa May announced a £75m investment to support new research into early diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer. 

This will fund more than 60 studies in prostate cancer over the next five years to test treatments, such as more precise radiotherapy, high-intensity focused ultrasound and cryotherapy, coupled with exercise and dietary advice. 

Readers' comments (30)

  • Fits so well with the iPhone doctor agenda.

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  • Dear All,
    Not really, think about the anatomy, DRE can only ever access the backside of the sphere of the prostate, you're never going to be able to examine the entire gland and even then you don't have ultrasonic transducers in your finger tips. Its always been a pointless and unnecessary examination. I've not done one for 20 years. i'm just surprised its taken so long to work out.
    Regards
    Paul C

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  • No shit Sherlock. :D

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  • Totally agree and they are going to be examined in great detail in secondary care so I rarely do them. However, the other day a colleague who does felt a nodule in a man with symptoms but a low PSA and they found a cancer. The exception that proves the rule?

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  • Not sure I agree. All clinical signs have sensitivity and specificity nil being 100%. The trick is to put them together and reach a conclusion. Prostate volume useful in deciding on therapy as well .

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  • Prof Miles is spot on, not performing DRE could miss alternative diagnoses, so don’t risk a GMC “failed to examine” prosecution.

    Also, to echo what is stated above, I recently found a nodule on a patient with a PSA of 3, turned out to be cancer after 2WW referral. PSA is simply not fit for excluding cancer, so are they seriously suggesting that every chap with vaguely prostatic symptoms be referred on a 2WW cancer rule with neither PSA nor DRE???

    We were all told a zillion times in Med School that “if you don’t put your finger in it you’ll put your foot in it”. Think I’ll stick to DRE thanks.

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  • Dear All,
    indeed the adage was taught at medical school, 30 years ago, and was derived from decades of prior medical practice going back to the venerable cutting for the stone.
    moving forward to the 21st century with ubiquitous USS and MRI scanning don't you think its time you moved from adage and anecdote based medicine to some of that evidence based stuff?
    Regards
    Paul C

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  • UtterFool

    So the take home message is that symptoms trump everything. If someone is highly symptomatic that’s grounds for a referral regardless of DRE and PSA. It does have implications on referral rates. I agree to suggest DRE is a pointless examination is missing it’s other uses, as detailed above. I’d love to find a reason not to perform this examination but I don’t this this reasearch paper is that reason.

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  • I think the point is that digital rectal exams have poor sensitivity as a test for prostrate cancer and normal clearly doesn’t rule it out. However I suspect the specificity is good. I’ve picked up prostate cancer on a DRE twice now with a normal PSA and referred as 2ww. If I’d not done it and referred as standard for symptoms only there would have been a delay.

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  • I'm with Osler - "Listen to the patient - he's telling you the diagnosis."
    Except that the USS / MRI speaks more loudly, of course.
    And the GMC trumps absolutely everything. So maybe I'll keep the KY handy after all.
    And the Daily Wail has no clue about false positives and false negatives. A false negative is a bad doctor who needs to be struck off, strung up and banged up.

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