As another Breast Cancer Awareness month closes for another year, let’s take a look at an infographic that the American College of Radiology sent out to journalists earlier this month. Here’s a portion of the email that I received:
We all make mistakes, but the misspelling of mammography gets this email off to a bad start. But when the infographic promises to give women “more information on which to base this important health care decision,” we thought we should analyze the information it delivered – and what it didn’t.
I asked Russell Harris, MD, MPH, of the University of North Carolina to analyze the infographic. He wrote:
“The problems lie not with their numbers, but with what they left out. They are talking about a one-time screen – for multiple screens over 10 years, say, the number of women with at least one positive mammogram is more like 500 out of the 1,000. And the biopsy rate (at least one biopsy) is also higher. And they don’t discuss the anxiety caused by having a false positive or from having to return for a follow-up surveillance mammogram. And they don’t say how many of the 5 women with breast cancer diagnosed not by screening but by symptoms would have also had a “high cure rate” (only 1 additional 40 year old women in 1,000 who are screened for 10 years have their lives extended by screening – 2 in 1,000 for 50 year olds, 3 in 1,000 for 60 year olds – and these are optimistic figures – it may be less than this). And they don’t say how many of those 5 women diagnosed with breast cancer are overdiagnosed – i.e., would never have been diagnosed at all if they had not been screened.”
Dr. Harris has written about the harms of screening, which he calls “the part that isn’t usually discussed.”
But the radiologists’ infographic made sure it delivered the message that “MammographySavesLives – one of them may be yours.”
We don’t know how many journalists used the infographic that the American College of Radiology sent out. We know that journalists receive these free infographics nearly every day from one source or another. The lesson – for journalists, and for the public, is clear: Don’t simply look at the information provided in these free handouts; look for the information that’s NOT provided.
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