Don’t Blur the Message on Cancer Screening

I hope this week’s headlines and editorials don’t add to the blurriness of the public’s perception of cancer screening – that people might begin to think it’s a bad thing all around. The details matter….screening if it’s done right can save lives and dollars. That’s because for most tumor types, treating advanced, metastatic disease is costlier than treatment of early-stage, curable tumors.

New Numbers Should Factor Into the Mammography Equation

On Friday the New York Times reported that surgeons are performing far too many open breast biopsies to evaluate abnormal mammogram results. A new American Journal of Surgery article analyzed data for 172,342 outpatient breast biopsies in the state of Florida. The main finding is that between 2003 and 2008, surgeons performed open biopsies in an operating room – as opposed to less invasive, safer biopsies with needles – in 30 percent of women with abnormal breast images.

I was truly surprised by this should-be outdated statistic, which further tips the mammography math equation in favor or screening.

It’s Not About the Money

If physicians’ potential profit motives cloud the mammography debate, as the authors contend, that doesn’t mean that mammography is ineffective. Rather it signifies that doctors and scientists should analyze data and make clinical decisions in the absence of financial or other conflicts of interest.

Getting the Math on Mammograms

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?

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