Innovation

Women caught in wringer between Congress and inferior mammogram technology


About three weeks ago, I had my very first baseline mammogram. My OB/GYN recommended that I select a location that offered digital imaging, and so I did. Had I read this news story beforehand, however, I may have reconsidered and elected a more traditional mammogram. Check it out: "Report: Computers hinder mammogram readings." 

Dr. Ferris Hall, who works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, claims that Medicare pays an extra $20 for mammograms that are read by computer. Hall says this financial incentive "was mandated by a heavily lobbied Congress, despite little evidence-based data in support of its value at the time."

One study, conducted by Dr. Joshua Fenton of the University of California at Davis and colleagues, examined more than 429,000 mammograms. "The research team used mammograms taken from 1998 to 2002 at 43 medical facilities in three states, seven of which switched to computer-aided detection in the middle of the study. With human-read mammograms, 98 out of every 1,000 women were mistakenly told they were free of cancer. When the readings were done with the help of a computer, that number rose to 128 out of 1,000, without significantly increasing the number of tumors that were spotted by X-ray. In addition, the researchers said the computer programs tended to focus on the least-dangerous types of cancers."

Well, do the computers at least cut down on the overall health care cost? Ha! "The researchers also estimated that if every medical center used computer-assisted detection, it would cost the U.S. health care system an extra $550 million, an increase of 18 percent in the cost of doing breast cancer screening exams."

So, let me get this straight... the computers cost more and are less accurate, but the government is offering financial incentives to use computer-aided detection instead of human-read mammograms. Can you make any sense of this?

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Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the several blogs.

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