Mammography is an important medical screening test that accounts for $8 billion in annual healthcare expenditures in the United States.1 For every 10,000 women ages 40 to 49 who receive regular mammograms, five lives are saved by the discovery of cancers that otherwise would go undetected. For women ages 50 to 59, ten lives are saved, and for women ages 60 to 69, 42 lives are saved. These statistics reflect the fact that breast cancer is more common as women age.2 However, screening guidelines issued by national organizations and medical specialties have inconsistent recommendations about screening ages and intervals,3 which can cause delayed or missed diagnoses.
Misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, and failure to diagnose breast cancer are liability risks, particularly for radiologists, gynecologists, general surgeons, and family medicine practitioners, according to closed claims data from The Doctors Company from 2007–2013. Several factors contribute to these risks:
The 2008 American College of Radiology and 2003 American Cancer Society guidelines recommend annual mammography screening for asymptomatic, average-risk women age 40 and older.4 However, the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2009 recommend starting routine mammograms for women with an average risk of breast cancer at age 50.4 Although the presence of numerous professionally endorsed options arguably gives physicians a broader set of clinically valid choices, inconsistent guidelines may also leave physicians feeling more exposed to malpractice claims.3
Adding to this dilemma is that some states are now requiring physicians to notify women who have dense breast tissue,5 which makes it more difficult to read mammograms. However, there are no guidelines on what physicians should do if a woman has dense breast tissue.
In addition, interpreting mammograms can be difficult because normal breasts vary in their mammographic appearance.6 Physicians should consider a personalized approach that best assesses the individual patient’s need.
Physicians can reduce risks and promote patient safety by:
For medical groups, all member physicians should agree on and follow consistent practice guidelines for breast cancer screening.
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.