The role of cross-sectional pelvic imaging with computerized tomography or magnetic resonance imaging and fine needle aspiration in the assessment of pelvic lymph nodes in patients with prostate cancer is undefined. To address this issue we used formal decision analysis, comparing an imaging arm to a no imaging arm. Patient utility values were calculated, and test parameters and complication rates were extracted from the literature. Imaging was superior to no imaging only when the pretest probability of pelvic lymph node metastases was high. The most important parameter was the sensitivity of cross-sectional imaging for lymphadenopathy. When the sensitivity was 36%, which was the baseline figure derived from the literature, the probability of lymph node metastases required for imaging to be beneficial overall was 32%. We also performed a retrospective review of magnetic resonance imaging examinations at our institution in 174 patients with newly diagnosed prostate cancer and pathological confirmation of nodal status. The sensitivity for detecting nodal metastases was 25%. With this figure, the estimated probability of nodal metastases required to make imaging beneficial would be 45%, which is possible to achieve with highly selective clinical criteria. With a policy of imaging only in select patients the marginal cost is $794 per patient benefited (aborted radical prostatectomy because of nodal metastases detected with fine needle aspiration) compared to $50,661 per patient benefited if all patients are imaged. Thus, cross-sectional pelvic imaging before radical prostatectomy, solely for the purpose of detecting pelvic lymph node metastases, is not justified routinely. However, it is worthwhile on the basis of patient use values and cost-effectiveness in a select group of patients at high risk for nodal metastases.
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