Numerous Americans go through the torture of experiencing a false positive from a cancer screening test, particularly when it comes to breast cancer.

How does this weigh on those patients?

What are the costs?

CBS news reports on the new information. A new report strengthens a medical debate about the costs and benefits of cancer screening. It estimates that the U.S. spends $4 billion a year on superfluous medical costs due to mammograms that generate false alarms, and on treatment of certain breast tumors that probably will not cause malignant cancer.  

The research was published on Monday in the journal Health Affairs. It breaks the cost down as follows, $2.8 billion resulting from false-positive mammograms and another $1.2 billion attributed to breast cancer over diagnosis. Over diagnosis refers to the treatment given to tumors that grow slowly or not at all, and are not likely to develop into a fatal disease during a woman's life.

The cost estimated ranges for women between the ages of  40-59. Experts say that breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer among American women; it takes around 41,000 lives per year.

“Annual mammograms starting at age 40 have long been considered standard for preventive care, because cancer is easier to treat if detected early. But recently there's been disagreement about regular screening for women in their 40s. It parallels the medical debate about the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening for men,” according to CBS.

The study authors found (through much analysis) that the cost of breast cancer overtreatment appears to be much larger than many researchers previously estimated. Their $4 billion estimation is the average of a range that depends upon assumptions about the rates of false positive mammograms and breast cancer over diagnosis cases.

What other costs do false positive patients face besides the financial aspect? These patients face risks from the additional medical procedures that their doctors prescribe based on their false positives. They also face additional psychological stress.

Dr. Mandl, who coauthored the study and is a professor at Harvard Medical School, said,

“We're hoping that the financial cost of this problem will help cast into greater relief the human cost. The two messages together are powerful. The fact that this is not only a problem, but a very costly problem, we hope will accelerate the attempts to try to fix the screening practices.”

What does the American Cancer Society recommend? They say that women should get mammograms every year after they turn 40. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government advisory group, recommends that regular screening begin later, at around age 50. The findings showed that women between ages of 40 to 49 were more likely to have a false-positive mammogram, compared to women are 50 or older.

Dr. Mandl said the assumptions in his study are supported by other research, and that by definition there is no medical advantage to mammograms that produce false-positive results.

The study was comprehensive; the results were based on billing data from a major U.S. insurer, encompassing over 700,000 women between the ages of 40-59 in all 50 states, from 2011 to 2013.


Gerry Oginski
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NY Medical Malpractice & Personal Injury Trial Lawyer
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