Getting the Math on Mammograms
The latest news’ focus on the breast cancer screening madness is about money.
So let’s do the math:
First, for argument’s sake, let’s say the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is right – that to save the life of one woman between the ages of 40 and 49, on average, you’d have to screen some 1903 additional women every year or so for a period of 10 years.
This is, admittedly, a huge assumption; the panel analyzed two decades’ worth of data, some unpublished, involving complex models applied to millions of data points (humans) amassed in imperfectly-collected data sets that vary in size, scope and accuracy.
Next, let’s say the cost of a mammogram is $150, around what Medicare pays (yet another assumption, but we need to keep this simple or we’ll never get a sense of what’s really at stake here).
So if 2000 women (I’m rounding up) undergo annual screening for 10 years, the bill would come to $300 thousand per year, for a total cost of $3 million over a decade. If those same middle-aged women were to get their mammograms biannually (every other year), the cost would be roughly $1.5 million per life saved.
This, the so-called cost of screening mammography for women between the ages of 40 and 49 (let’s call it “X”), is all over the news in various calculations, some that get closer to the right answer than others.
But what’s the cost of caring for one 45 year old woman with metastatic breast cancer?
Let’s call that amount “Y.”
Even the heartless among us would admit that we need to subtract, X-Y, to determine the financial cost of breast cancer screening to save one middle-aged woman’s life.
An insurance executive might say it’s in the range of $400 thousand, or a million dollars, or maybe even two million, if the woman lives long enough to go in and out of the hospital over the course of five years, undergo multiple surgical procedures, have semi-permanent intravenous catheters inserted and removed, suffer infections from those requiring at-home multi-week courses of intravenous antibiotics, all of this besides, of course, receiving chemotherapy, radiation, hormone treatments, incalculably expensive antibody infusions and newer, targeted therapies, followed by hospice (hopefully) or ICU care in the end.
Quick answer: maybe it’s cost-effective, or nearly so, to do screening mammograms on asymptomatic women in their forties.
But consider – if the expert panel’s numbers are off just a bit, by as little as one or two more lives saved per 1904 women screened, the insurers could make a profit!
By my calculation, if one additional woman at a cost of, say, $1 million, is saved among the screening group, the provider might break even. And if three women in the group are saved by the procedure, the decision gets easier…
Now, imagine the technology has advanced, ever so slightly, that another four or five women are saved among the screening lot.
How could anyone, even with a profit motive, elect not to screen those 2000 women?
The truest answer, of course, is that the value of any one person’s life is inconceivably huge. And that doesn’t even enter into the equation.