14 December 2007

Doctor-Dependent Mammography

Not all lumps are malignant. A lead author of an interesting study about mammography says that the effectiveness of mammography as a diagnostic tool for detecting breast cancer is highly dependent on the doctor (radiologist) doing the interpretative reading.

Results of the said study showed that radiologists from academic medical centers (university hospitals) and those who spent 20 percent or more of their time on breast imaging had better batting averages. Meaning? It means these doctors were better interpreters than other radiologists.

In mammography, as in any other diagnostic test, the most frustrating news is either a false-positive result or a false-negative result. 'False-positive' is telling someone she has breast cancer when, in reality, she's perfectly okay. A false positive result brings too much agony on the part of the patient, a lot of unnecessary expenses, and of course, the possible wrong removal of a normal breast (or breasts!). On the other hand, a 'false-negative' result, while less frustrating initially, brings more torment in the long run. Imagine being lulled in a state of false complacency of no breast cancer when, in fact, you have breast cancer evolving from stage I to stage IV. Suddenly, it dawns on the patient that not even suing her erring radiologist can save her from dying.

Interpretation is a subjective matter and to err is always human, but those are all lame excuses to a troubled patient who puts so much trust in her doctor. Advice? Always seek the opinion of the better radiologist. Sure, he commits mistakes, too, but on a lesser frequency. Sure, he might be charging astronomical fees, but overall, you might actually be saving more if he correctly interprets your mammography results the first time.

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