Combining simple blood tests to identify primary care patients with unexpected weight loss for cancer investigation: Clinical risk score development, internal validation, and net benefit analysis
Nicholson BD., Aveyard P., Koshiaris C., Perera R., Hamilton W., Oke J., Hobbs FDR.
Background Unexpected weight loss (UWL) is a presenting feature of cancer in primary care. Existing research proposes simple combinations of clinical features (risk factors, symptoms, signs, and blood test data) that, when present, warrant cancer investigation. More complex combinations may modify cancer risk to sufficiently rule-out the need for investigation. We aimed to identify which clinical features can be used together to stratify patients with UWL based on their risk of cancer. Methods and findings We used data from 63,973 adults (age: mean 59 years, standard deviation 21 years; 42% male) to predict cancer in patients with UWL recorded in a large representative United Kingdom primary care electronic health record between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2012. We derived 3 clinical prediction models using logistic regression and backwards stepwise covariate selection: Sm, symptoms-only model; STm, symptoms and tests model; Tm, tests-only model. Fifty imputations replaced missing data. Estimates of discrimination and calibration were derived using 10-fold internal cross-validation. Simple clinical risk scores are presented for models with the greatest clinical utility in decision curve analysis. The STm and Tm showed improved discrimination (area under the curve > 0.91), calibration, and greater clinical utility than the Sm. The Tm was simplest including age-group, sex, albumin, alkaline phosphatase, liver enzymes, C-reactive protein, haemoglobin, platelets, and total white cell count. A Tm score of 5 balanced ruling-in (sensitivity 84.0%, positive likelihood ratio 5.36) and ruling-out (specificity 84.3%, negative likelihood ratio 0.19) further cancer investigation. A Tm score of 1 prioritised ruling-out (sensitivity 97.5%). At this threshold, 35 people presenting with UWL in primary care would be referred for investigation for each person with cancer referred, and 1,730 people would be spared referral for each person with cancer not referred. Study limitations include using a retrospective routinely collected dataset, a reliance on coding to identify UWL, and missing data for some predictors. Conclusions Our findings suggest that combinations of simple blood test abnormalities could be used to identify patients with UWL who warrant referral for investigation, while people with combinations of normal results could be exempted from referral.