The sojourn time, time spent in the preclinical detectable phase (PCDP) for chronic diseases, for example, breast cancer, plays an important role in the design and assessment of screening programmes. Traditional methods to estimate it usually assume a uniform incidence rate of preclinical disease from a randomized control group or historical data. In this paper, a two-parameter Markov chain model is proposed and developed to explicitly estimate the preclinical incidence rate (λ1) and the rate of transition from preclinical to clinical state (λ2, equivalent to the inverse of mean sojourn time) without using control data. A new estimate of sensitivity is proposed, based on the estimated parameters of the Markov process. When this method is applied to the data from the Swedish two-county study of breast cancer screening in the age group 70–74, the estimate of MST is 2·3 with 95 per cent CI ranging from 2·1 to 2·5, which is close to the result based on the traditional method but the 95 per cent CI is narrower using the Markov model. The reason for the greater precision of the latter is the fuller use of all temporal data, since the continuous exact times to events are used in our method instead of grouping them as in the traditional method. Ongoing and future researches should extend this model to include, for example, the tumour size, nodal status and malignancy grade, along with methods of simultaneously estimating sensitivity and the transition rates in the Markov process.
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