JAMA Review on Mammography Points to the Need for Better Ways to Advise Women and Detect Breast Cancer

It’s hard to argue with the findings and conclusions of a new paper in JAMA put forth by Drs. Lydia Pace and Nancy Keating, both physicians with public health degrees and appointments at Harvard-affiliated hospitals. The article, published on April 2, has generated a predictable round of headlines along the lines of “Large Study Finds Little Benefit in Mammography.”

You might, while reading or hearing about this news, wonder about the value of yet another study on breast cancer screening. And you might, if you are following this blog, wonder why I remain convinced that mammography – when done right – has the potential to save many women’s lives and, what’s more, to spare even more from the physical, financial and emotional toll of prolonged treatment for advanced-stage disease.

Why I still think that breast cancer screening is a good idea for most middle-aged women (selected, from a longer list):

1. Several valid studies, most notably that from Sweden, have shown a significant survival benefit of breast cancer screening over the long term. These findings, which demonstrated a benefit to women screened in their forties, received little attention in the news.

2. Mammography is not all the same. It’s not a simple, black-and-white or numeric readout. The “result” depends a lot on the radiologist who interprets the images. Some radiologists, by their training and expertise, deliver lower false positive rates and higher true positive (malignant) “pickup” rates. To say that mammography doesn’t work, based on studies over a population, discounts the potential (and likely) benefit of having the procedure done by experts.

3. Pathology methods have improved over the past three decades. Some doctors, including epidemiologists and PCPs, may not be aware of new tools for evaluating tumors that lessen the risk of over-treating early-stage and indolent tumors.

4. Longer survival is not the only benefit of mammography. Late detection involves risks, and costs. “Screening neglect,” as some researchers call it, adds intensity to needed treatment when patients first seek care for advanced disease. This was the focus of a recent paper in the American Journal of Roentgenology that got little press except for the Cleveland Plains Dealer. The investigators in that careful but retrospective analysis found that among women in their forties, breast cancers detected in routine mammograms were significantly smaller than those detected in women who waited until they felt a lump or had symptoms. That finding was no surprise. But what mattered is that the difference in size of invasive breast cancers found – between screened and unscreened women – translated to less chemotherapy for those screened. The point: finding breast cancer early can reduce the need for toxic and costly treatment.

In reading the new JAMA paper, “A Systematic Assessment…” it seems like the authors are giving a well-prepared talk. Essentially it’s a review of reviews on mammography. Yes, it’s that “meta.” They examined the literature on mammography, going back to 1960 – but with an appropriate emphasis on more recent studies, to address 4 (huge, complex) questions: 1) what is the benefit of mammography screening, and how does it vary by patient age and risk?; 2) what are the harms of mammography screening?; 3) what is known about personalizing screening recommendations?  4) how can patients be supported to make more informed decisions about screening?

This is an ambitious set of questions, to say the least. The tables provided, which are for the most part inconclusive, draw heavily on findings that vary in the era of data collected, methods of analysis, and reasonableness of authors’ assumptions, i.e. validity.

But there is no news on mammography here, except that these two thoughtful investigators carefully reviewed the literature. There are no original data in this ambitious analysis, i.e. there is no new information about mammography’s effectiveness, the false positive rate, the harms of screening, overdiagnosis, etc.

Unfortunately the article, at a glance, may add to the growing perception among journalists, primary care physicians who may not read below the paper’s title, and others – including many ordinary women – that mammography’s effectiveness has been, again, disproved.  And so if journalists cover this “story,” as they have and will, our collective memory will incorrectly recall another negative finding, which this is not.

The authors’ main conclusions are that decision aides may be helpful, and that developing better ways of screening for breast cancer would be even better than that. I agree.

Related Posts:

For MLK Day – On Giving Blood, and Maybe Being the Match

January is National Blood Donor Month. For those who can give, it’s never too late; the need is year-round.

A few years back, I wrote on the value of donating blood, as many will do today to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When I was practicing hematology I wasn’t aware of this practice, which now seems integrated with nationwide MLK National Day of Service events. The Orlando Sentinel published an article linking blood donation with MLK on January 14 1988.

Here are some resources for people who’d like to know more about giving blood:

Give Your Blood To Save a Life, Poster (American National Red Cross), U.S. National Archives

Give Your Blood To Save a Life, Poster (American National Red Cross), U.S. National Archives

The American Red Cross provides information on when and where to donate blood, as well as helpful instruction on the process of giving for first-time donors.

The AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks, covers transfusions and related therapies.

America’s Blood Centers – a large network of non-profit community blood centers.

The New York Blood Center – a terrific local resource for my neighbors, a pioneer in blood banking and resources for patients worldwide.

For those who’d consider bone marrow donation, the National Marrow Donor Program helps patients with leukemia and other conditions find matching bone marrow donors.  The agency provides, also, financial assistance to some who can’t afford needed transplants.

Today, I learned that Robin Roberts, the GMA anchor who has been through breast cancer treatment and, subsequently, a bone marrow transplant for a rare blood disorder (MDS), has launched a public service campaign to encourage blood and marrow donors. Each of us can only do what we can. That she is alive and putting her name behind the drive, telling her audience what they can might to do to aid others, is heartening.

As someone who has benefited from the generosity of healthy donors, and the kindness of strangers among those, thank you!

Related Posts:

Seeing ZocDoc, And Listening To A Panel On Improving Health Care

A few evenings ago, I visited ZocDoc. The youthful company, seemingly approaching middle age among startups that began in 2007, looks to be thriving. ZocDoc keeps its headquarter downtown in a loft-like, mainly open, SoHo space replete with a ping-pong table, open kitchen and mock street signs pointing (abstractly) to concepts like “Make Work Fun” and “Patients First.” The vibe amongst the crowd – a hundred or so by my crude estimate: a mix of doctors and entrepreneurs, a few journalists, insurance executives and investors, along with some ZocDoc employees – was strictly positive.

According to its website*, ZocDoc is:

… a free service that allows patients to find a nearby doctor or dentist who accepts their insurance, see their real-time availability, and instantly book an appointment via ZocDoc.com or ZocDoc’s free apps for iPhone or Android.

Basically it’s a small-but-not-tiny, growing health IT company that provides an on-line way, like an app, for people to find doctors who accept their insurance and have available time slots. (Think of OpenTable, but for health care?) Since 2007, ZocDoc has expanded. The company, with some 450 employees, claims over 2.5 million users monthly in over 1,800 cities.* Its business model includes that doctors, dentists and possibly other provider-types, pay an annual fee to participate ($300 per month, an employee told me). Since it started, ZocDoc has received significant press and gained prominent investors like Goldman Sachs and Jeff Bezos. It’s won awards as a top-notch place to work. Kudos!

The main event was a panel discussion of a dry-sounding subject:  “Improving Healthcare: The Public and Private Sectors’ Shared Responsibility.” ZocDoc’s founder Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Oliver Kharraz, introduced a formidable panel of speakers, in this order: Senator Tom Daschle, Dr. Brad Weinberg, of Blueprint Health, Senator and Dr. Bill Frist, Rich Fernandez, of the Boston-based Steward Medical Group and Dr. Amanda Parsons, of the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Dr. Kharraz opened with a question on how technology and medical startups, like ZocDoc, will fare in the context of Obamacare and upcoming, uncertain changes in the health care landscape. Daschle was first to answer, and he did so by congratulating the company for its talent and the passion it brings to a turbulent, transformative health care environment. A fit-looking Frist, a former heart surgeon, spoke enthusiastically on opportunities in the private sector. Other panelists chimed in, with words like “value,” “exciting,” “risk,” “entrepreneurial,” “wellness” and “opportunity.”

No word cloud is needed; we were in one. And it’s hard not to be charmed by the brightness of enthusiastic and eager tech-folks who want to make it easier for people to get to doctors they might need. In theory. The ZocDoc space bore no semblance to any hospital or office where I’ve been a doctor or a patient.

At the end of the discussion, one of the panelists noted the group’s apparent agreement on the terrific-ness of the enterprise. Rather than opening the session up to questions from the audience, we were invited to mingle and ask questions of the speakers. If I’d had the chance, I’d have asked a few:

1. Does ZocDoc help people get well, or is it simply a web-based system for procuring appointments with doctors who sign on?

2. What does ZocDoc offer that another health IT program, or portal, can’t or couldn’t provide?

3. How does ZocDoc help patients who don’t have insurance? (OK, it doesn’t; but that’s not the company’s aim)

4. Sure, ZocDoc has value. It helps a small fraction of the population who might be traveling and for one reason or another need to make a doctor’s appointment without having time to ask around or call in, or prefer to just click for an appointment (as I do for groceries), but…Does ZocDoc improve the quality of health care received?

5. How do you reconcile the money being invested in start-ups like these, which make health care “easier” for a few, with the lack of resources faced by real, nearby NYC hospitals closing?

Keep in mind, my concerns are based in my enthusiasm for technology in health care, and for giving providers, aka doctors, a “shot in the arm” of modern-ness. Enter the 21st Century…But there’s no hands-on a patient, no real medicine here. It’s too clean. I’m not convinced the value’s true.

*all links accessed 9/19/13

addendum, 9/20: a ZocDoc representative has informed me by email that the fee for providers is based on an annual contract priced at about $300/month, and so I have adjusted the post accordingly. (I’d originally stated that the fee was approximately $300 per year, based on my recollection of what an employee told me during the event.) – ES

Related Posts:

Reading Toms River

When I was a medical resident working at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the late 1980s, some of us joked about the apparently high cancer rate New Jersey. It seemed, though none of us could prove it, that too many of our patients came from the state across the Hudson. Statistics can be tricky, I knew. Sometimes we notice clusters of disease that are just random blips, constellations or flukes.

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

So when Dan Fagin’s book, Toms River, came out two months ago, I was drawn. The narrative opens with a gripping portrait of a young man whose frame was irrevocably altered by a childhood cancer. It moves on to the history of the small town in central NJ where Ciba, an international chemical company now subsumed by BASF, set up shop in the early 1950s.

The residents hadn’t a clue what was happening to their water. Fagin, an environmental journalist, wades through a half century of dumping, denial, Greenpeace efforts to expose the situation, local citizens’ mixed responses, real estate, some basic and theoretical chemistry, cancer registries and more.

I value this book highly. Toms River could be a lot of places – pretty much anywhere pollution goes unchecked. As the author points out near the end, the problem’s manifest in China now, and elsewhere. It’s a lesson in business ethics, among other things.

The tale intersperses epidemiology and statistics with local politics and individuals’ lives. It reveals just how hard it is to prove cause and effect when it comes to cancer – which, as I’ve said before, is no reason to let industry go unregulated. Because we’ll rarely if ever get definitive, 100%-style evidence that a particular compound causes cancer in humans. Rather, the story points to the need for lowering the threshold for chemicals on the list, and for regulating toxins in manufacturing.

A subtler point, deeper in some ways, is that there are people who don’t want to think about their neighborhood’s water supply or the food they like to eat…”Out of sight and out of mind,” Fagin says in the thick of it. He’s spot-on, there: when a toxic exposure is disconnected from its outcome by decades – and diluted, we tend not to notice or worry.



Related Posts:

Another Take on Not Smoking, the Law and Tolerance

The New Yorker published a story this week, on smoking, that caught my attention. It’s by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author died in 1940 at the age of 44, after a ruinous period of addictions including alcoholism, debts and other problems.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (June, 1937), photo by Carl van Vechten

Thank You for the Light dates to 1936. The main character is a woman: “Mrs. Hanson was a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty…” She sold girdles and craved cigarettes. Smoking had the power to “rest and relax her psychologically.” He describes her growing frustration at not being able to take a drag in offices where she did business.

The story suggests that although public and workplace smoking wasn’t illegal back then, it was frowned upon in cities like Chicago. The protagonist longs for past years and places where she could chat and share a drink or cigarette with clients after work. Times had changed, she reflects.

In Fitzgerald’s words:

…Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with ‘It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.’

This vignette offers a 1930s perspective on what some call social health – that an individual’s behavior might be influenced by neighbors’ and coworkers’ attitudes. In this story, the woman finds solace in a church. I won’t give away the ending.

The short read lingers. What’s unsettling, still, is whether the socially-driven ban on smoking helped or harmed the woman.

According to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner, the magazine rejected Fitzgerald’s story when he submitted the piece. The writer’s granddaughter recently uncovered it. This time around, it passed muster.


Related Posts:

Three Reasons to Celebrate the Supreme Court’s Decision on Obamacare

I’m thrilled about today’s SCOTUS decision. The Supreme Court upheld the gist of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Am I surprised? Yes, like pretty much everyone – I didn’t anticipate Chief Justice Roberts’ clever argument about the individual mandate.

What I see in this is first, a win for patients, who now are more likely to get health care if and when they need it – preventive and otherwise. L’Chaim!

Second, it’s a win for the Obama administration and the Democrats. And although I went to journalism school at Columbia University and was told that “real journalists don’t share their opinions,” I do: I’m a registered, reliable, primary-voting Democrat. The ACA is, so far, President Obama’s signature achievement. This SCOTUS decision supports the President’s goal of simultaneously reining in health care costs and expanding coverage to all. It raises the likelihood of President Obama’s re-election. Cheers!

Finally, and at a deeper level, the decision reflects the power of one man’s thoughtfulness to change the outcome of a seemingly bleak situation. (This can happen in oncology and other kinds of medicine, when most of the doctors or specialists on a case throw up their hands or say “it’s impossible because of blah, blah, blah,” and they might refer to some old published studies on old drugs, or something like that.) What Chief Justice Roberts did was think out-of-the box, carefully and within a legal framework. Like a good, smart doctor, morally grounded and, perhaps, influenced by compassion (hard to tell), the Chief Justice figured out a legally acceptable way for his court to do the right thing. By his wisdom, he will have saved more than a few lives. Bravo!

Related Posts:

New Studies on Colon Cancer Screening by Colonoscopy and Fecal Blood Testing

Last week the NEJM published two major papers on screening for colon and rectal cancer. The most notable finding supports that colonoscopy – when done properly and not necessarily often – saves lives.

The NCI estimates that doctors will find over 103,000 colon and 40,000 rectal cancers, and the number of deaths will exceed 51,000 this year in the U.S. According to the ACS, colorectal cancer ranks third as a cause of cancer mortality in men and in women. In light of these numbers, the potential for screening to reduce deaths and costs of treating people with advanced disease is great.

Both analyses are unfortunately – almost dauntingly – complicated. An accompanying editorial, by Drs. M. Bretthauer and M. Kalager lends some perspective.

colon adenoma pathology, H&E stain, (Wiki Commons: "Nephron")

The first report comes from a group of researchers led by Ann Zauber, PhD, a biostatistician at MSKCC. This team examined long-term outcomes among 2602 adults who had adenomatous polyps removed between 1980 and 1990, followed by colonoscopy recommended at varying intervals in a trial. With a median follow-up of 15.8 years, there were only 12 deaths from colon cancer in the study population – essentially half the number expected by comparison with SEER data.

The main limitations I see in this report are two. First, what might be considered a good thing – the high compliance rate: 81% of those with adenomas underwent some follow-up colonoscopy. And second – along a similar vein – that the colonoscopies were performed by highly-trained physicians at academic centers in a trial that mandated a certain degree of thoroughness and quality. Some criticism of the work is that the findings won’t translate to the community at large, as mentioned in the editorial and in the paper itself. That’s because some “real world” gastroenterologists don’t perform the procedure so carefully. Apart from the trial, many people are genuinely hesitant about having colonoscopy out of concern about its unpleasantness and also costs. Compliance with colonoscopy recommendations runs low.

These are valid concerns. But they don’t abrogate the value of the procedure. Rather, they point to the need for rigorous training of doctors who do colonoscopy, for close monitoring of facilities where it’s done (and in path labs, where the specimens are evaluated), and for insurance or a national health plan to enable patients, if they choose, to have this potentially life-saving screening test covered.

The second study, from a group in Spain, examined the relative merits of checking stool samples for blood every two years vs. colonoscopy every ten years in over 50,000 people. The preliminary finding – after just one “round” of colonoscopy in those assigned to that trial arm, is that a higher proportion complied with fecal blood testing than with colonoscopy. Among those who underwent colonoscopy, cancers and adenomas were found in a greater fraction. But the absolute number of cancers detected was essentially the same in each group, because more people assigned to fecal screening completed the task.

My take from these reports, combined, is that periodic colonoscopy has the potential to halve the number of deaths from colon cancer in the general population. But it’s an unpleasant, invasive and expensive test that does carry some risks. The quality of the test – both in terms of its thoroughness and risk of complication – would depend, in part, on the training and experience of the doctor who performs the test. So, as with mammography, I favor heavy regulation and careful certification of physicians who perform these procedures.

As to how colonoscopy relates to fecal blood testing as a screening method at the population level, and the optimal start and frequency of either test, those remain uncertain. Dr. Zauber, it turns out, heads the NCI-funded National Colonoscopy Study. This ongoing work will, hopefully, shed light on how testing for blood in stool samples compares with colonoscopy in colon cancer screening and, ultimately, costs and mortality from late-stage disease.

Related Posts:

Counterfeit Drugs, A New Concern for Patients

This week the FDA issued an alert about fake Avastin. The real drug is a Genentech-manufactured monoclonal antibody prescribed to some cancer patients. Counterfeit vials were sold and distributed to more than a dozen offices and medical treatment facilities in the U.S. This event, which seems to have affected a small number of patients and practices, should sound a big alarm.

Even the most empowered patient – one who’s read up on his drug regimen, and engaged with his physician about what and how much he wants to receive, and visited several doctors for second opinions and went on-line to discuss treatment options with other patients and possibly some experts – can’t know, for sure, exactly what’s in the bag attached to his IV pole.

Counterfeit Avastin (images from FDA)

Scary because patients are so vulnerable –

The problem is this. If you’re sick and really need care, at some point you have to trust that what you’re getting, whether it’s a dose of an antibiotic, or a hit of radiation to a bone met, or a drug thinner, is what it’s supposed to be. If vials are mislabeled, or machines wrongly calibrated, the error might be impossible to detect until side effects appear. If you’re getting a hoax of a cancer drug in combination with other chemo, and it might or might not work in your case, and its side effects – typically affecting just a small percent of recipients – are in a black box, it could be really hard to know you’re not getting the right stuff.

What this means for providers is that your patients are counting on you to dot the i’s. Be careful. Know your sources. Triple-check everything.

The bigger picture – and this falls into a pattern of a profit motive interfering with good care – is that pharmacists and doctors and nurses need time to do their work carefully. They need to get rest, so that they’re not working robotically, and so that they don’t assume that someone else has already checked what they haven’t. And whoever is buying medications or supplies for a medical center, let’s hope they’re not cutting shady deals.

This issue may be broader than is known, now. The ongoing chemo shortage might make a practice “hungry” for drugs. And with so many uninsured, some patients may seek treatments from less-than-reputable infusion givers. The black market, presumably, includes drugs besides Avastin.

If I were receiving an infusion today, like chemo or anesthesia or an infusion of an antibody for Crohn’s disease, I’d worry a little bit extra. I mean, who will check every single vial and label and box? Think of the average hospital patient, and how much stuff they receive in an ordinary day – including IV fluids that might be contaminated with bacteria.

It’s scary because of the loss of control. This circumstance might be inherent to being a patient – in being a true patient and not a “consumer.”

Related Posts:

Do Adults Need Physicians to Tell Them to Exercise?

According to a new CDC report, only 1 in 3 doctors advise their adult patients to exercise. The survey-based findings are limited, in part, because they rely on people’s recollection of whether they’d visited a physician in the previous year and what they were told. Nonetheless, the study revealed some clear trends:

1. In 2010, 32.4% of adults who’d seen a health care professional were advised to begin or continue with exercise or other physical activity. That fraction’s up significantly from 2000, when a slim 22.6% of patients recalled their doctors telling them to get a move on.

2. Among folks over 85 years, nearly 29% say they were told to exercise. That number’s nearly doubled since 2000, when only 15.3% of elderly patients reportedly received this kind of advice.

3. Adults with diabetes were told to increase their activity more often than those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Compared with healthy weight adults, obese people were twice as likely to have been told to exercise by a physician or other health professional.

An underlying message is that doctors should be prodding their patients to exercise. From the report:

Research points to the benefits of physical activity for reducing the risk of chronic health conditions (1–4). Engaging in regular physical activity can reduce medication dependence, help maintain functional independence, and improve the quality of life for older adults (5,6). Physicians and other health professionals can be influential sources of health information, and exercise counseling by primary care physicians has been shown to increase patients’ participation in physical activity (6–9).

There was discussion about this yesterday on Twitter, stemming in part from a USA Today article on the report. And here’s the essence of the short-form debate:

Some suggested that doctors don’t tell patients to exercise because they, themselves, are overweight. Or it’s because they don’t feel comfortable recommending for others what they don’t do themselves. While this might explain some physicians’ behavior or discomfort with the topic, it can’t explain that of the majority.

So why don’t more doctors prescribe exercise for their patients?

Reasons I wonder about include a lack of time for “non-essential” communication, especially in clinics. In specialists’ offices, the omission of exercise could have to do with the visit’s purpose. A gastroenterologist or internist who evaluates a patient for a problem like diarrhea, say, might not think to ask about exercise. For some doctors it might be, problematically, an attitude issue – that they just don’t care that much, or think it would be a waste of time to discuss the matter of exercise.

Whatever the reasons are that most doctors don’t bring up the issue, one might ask this: Why do adults need doctors to tell them about the health benefits of regular exercise? After all, it’s common knowledge – the kind of thing taught in elementary school, like nutrition should be – that regular exercise is good for most people. As we age, being out of condition makes every task in life, like walking a few blocks, harder.

In an ideal world, we’d have most adults exercising regularly, and doctors who’d occasionally intervene and counsel patients about what they shouldn’t do because of a particular medical condition, like arthritis or heart limitation. I guess we’re not there yet –

All for this week,


Related Posts:

Notes on Wendell Potter, and Why Companies Support the Individual Mandate

The current debate about the individual mandate reminded me to post this –

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to hear Wendell Potter, author of Deadly Spin – an insider’s sharp critique of the insurance industry, speak at a meeting of the New York Metropolitan Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. Despite the cold, dark winter night and midtown dreariness of the meeting location, the large lecture room was packed. I arrived well before Potter’s presentation but couldn’t get a copy of his book; they’d sold out.

The meeting was instructive: I got a sense of Potter’s personal story (he’s from Tennessee, and lived for a while in Appalachia), his previous career (he worked as a journalist, turned to marketing, eventually led PR for Cigna) and his perspective on how people in the health care industry use language to frame the debate on health care reform. Since 2009, when he left his position at Cigna, he writes and speaks critically about the insurance industry.

Potter made several points that clarified my understanding of the insurance companies’ support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and why many business-minded sorts are adamant about the individual mandate component in the law.

Insurance companies can’t make a profit without the individual mandate unless they deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, he explained. ”Think about it,” he said. “If young and healthy people aren’t going to buy insurance, and insurance companies can’t refuse to cover those with pre-existing conditions, the companies would be responsible only for providing health care to people who choose insurance, including everyone who is sick.”

“Most Republicans who say they favor repeal are disingenuous in that,” he said. “They’re using a smoke screen tactic to persuade the public that they’re against the legislation, but really they support it,” he told. “The insurance companies need it to stay in business,” he added.

The new legislation will also serve most large providers of health care services. That’s because without reform,  more and more Americans will go without any insurance. “If you keep shifting the costs of health care to consumers, they won’t buy it,” he said. And without insurance, most people can’t afford all but the most essential medical services – if those.

So the individual mandate assures that the insurance industry can remain profitable. And it serves the health care industry by maximizing the number of healthy people who will participate in health care spending.

In other words (ES): The health care industry needs health care to be affordable to many “consumers.”

All for now –

Related Posts:

newsletter software
Get Adobe Flash player