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False Positive Mammograms Raise Health Care Use

By Suzanne Rostler

Thursday April 19, 2001

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Screening mammograms that indicate cancer but turn out to be untrue upon followup can lead to an increase in women's use of medical services in the year following the test, study findings suggest.

An abnormal result or ``false positive"" occurs in about 10% of screening mammograms in the US, note Dr. Mary B. Barton of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts and colleagues. While a mammogram or X-ray of the breast does not actually diagnose breast cancer, a positive result can lead to further tests that can take weeks or months, Barton said.

The study found that a group of almost 500 women with false positive mammograms had 14% more doctor visits for reasons not related to their diagnosis the year after their test. They were also about three times more likely to visit doctors for breast-related concerns compared with a group of women with normal mammograms.

While many breast-related visits to doctors were initiated by other physicians, women themselves initiated three times as many of these visits compared with women with normal mammograms.

``I suspect...that for a substantial number of women, having an abnormal mammogram is disrupting to their emotional lives during the (procedure) and perhaps even after the evaluation is complete,"" Barton told Reuters Health.

The researchers estimate that over a 10-year period, about 16 million US women could receive false positive mammograms resulting in 9.7 million breast-related visits and 14.4 million non-breast-related visits.

Barton explained that a woman who receives an abnormal test result may perceive herself as more vulnerable, which can prompt doctors' visits. Alternatively, a woman may perceive the incident as ``a wake-up call"" and decide to take care of other health problems that may have been ignored in the past.

The researchers note that while mammograms, like other tests, can result in false positives, they have been shown to reduce deaths from breast cancer overall.

SOURCE: Journal of General Internal Medicine 2001;16:150-156.

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