NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # LIGHTHOUSE Healthcare. Illuminated.

Mammography

The passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the reelection of President Obama was cause for real hope among those in pursuit of the Holy Grail in medicine: higher quality at lower cost. However, with the passage of what is called the Breast Density Bill in several states, the quality cost equation seems doomed on both ends.  The Affordable Care Act mandates coverage of screening mammograms, without co-pay or deductible, but the Breast Density Bill is destined to push utilization of “non-beneficial” imaging, ie imaging that does not clearly save lives, even further.

The new law, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, was signed into law this past October in California.  Beginning April of next year, the bill requires facilities that perform mammograms to include a special notice, within the imaging report sent to patients, regarding the high density of breast tissue and the benefit of additional screening tests.   The notice will state the following; “Because your mammogram demonstrates that you have dense breast tissue, which could hide small abnormalities, you might benefit from supplementary screening tests, depending on your individual risk factors”.

The supporters of the bill make the ethical argument that women have the right to know about how dense breast tissue can obscure mammogram visualization, and should be offered additional test such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to alleviate the doubt.  To provide further support, the SOMO INSIGHT Breast Cancer Screening Study is a nationwide research effort to evaluate if automated breast ultrasound done together with routine screening mammogram is more accurate in detecting breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue.  The study is funded by U-Systems, Inc.; the Silicon Valley based company responsible for the sophisticated and expensive ultrasound technology used in this study.  Thus, one cannot deny the possibility of patient interest being confounded by financial interest.

The patient advocacy movement around breast cancer has been championed by several well-known non-profits, such as Susan B Komen, Are You Dense Inc. and even endorsement by the National Football League.  Yet, the confusion about screening is reflected in the variability of requirements for insurance coverage between states. For example, while Texas and Mississippi require screening mammograms to be covered for all women 35 and older, Utah has no coverage requirement and several other states do not require coverage until age 40.1 Awareness of breast cancer screening is necessary, and the complexities of picking up certain irregularities certainly deserve attention. However, the patient’s “right to know” should also include the right to know about “over-diagnosis”.
Continue reading “The Breast Density Bill: A (Very) Dense Dilemma …”

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Gun rights advocates are correct: a well armed principal might have reduced the death toll from the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut last week.

Gun carrying citizens might also have been able to take down the shooters in Aurora and Virginia Tech. To most people, after all, guns are about self-defense, not about committing crimes. As the old saying goes: “There has never been a mass shooting at a gun show.”

On the other hand, gun control advocates are correct to point out that mentally disturbed people like Adam Lanza would not be able to commit massacres if they were prevented from getting their hands on high-powered, semiautomatic weapons. They are also correct to point out that Americans have staggeringly easy access to weapons that far exceed what any sportsmanlike hunter would use during deer season.

In other words, figuring out what to do in the wake of the Connecticut massacre means recognizing the truth in both of these views. It means considering the possibility that the answer to reducing gun violence is a matter of both having more guns and less.

To understand what I mean by “both more and less,” I offer two analogies: a straightforward one about airport security, and a more unexpected one about breast cancer screening.

Continue reading “A Well-Armed and Regulated Citizenry, Led by Heavily-Armed Teachers in Body Armor …”

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This month’s Narrative Matters in Health Affairs (Why I Don’t Get Mammograms) is among the best I’ve read. Author Veneta Mason is a late 50s nurse practitioner whose sister died from breast cancer. Yet she’s consciously decided not to get mammograms anymore because she doesn’t believe early detection makes successful treatment more likely or extends life. To summarize her arguments:

  • Cancer is horrible but metastatic breast cancer is just as treatable and deadly whether or not a patient undergoes routine screening. Even though she accepts her risk may be significantly higher due to her sister’s illness, it doesn’t matter if screening doesn’t make her treatment better or life longer
  • It’s important to have a primary care physician who accepts her reasoning about screening

Continue reading “Saying No to Mammo”

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