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Less Frequent Mammograms May Lower False-Positive Results


3 Star

Less Frequent Mammograms May Lower False-Positive Results

Our Review Summary

  • The first sentence mentions “A slightly higher risk of being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer” but two lines later we’re told this “wasn’t statistically significant.”  So why was it in the lead?  And why state it as a definitively “slightly higher risk”?
  • The story converts 61% (false positives from annual screening) into “more than half” but then gives the actual percentage – 42%  who had false positives from biennial screening.  “More than half” could be 51% or higher.  That was too vague and unhelpful.
  • The story frames this “as the latest volley in an ongoing debate.”  Not really.  This was science at work – a new study published in a journal.
  • The story says the US Preventive Services Task Force 2009 mammography recommendations “startled the world.”  Not really.  It didn’t startle anyone who follows this science closely.


Why This Matters

The framing of this story was odd and troubling.  Rather than build in drama (“latest volley…startled the world”), journalists would be better off giving the data and getting out of the way with flowery phrases.

The critical question is whether you can do less frequent screening, subject women to fewer harms and get similar results in terms of detection of
“early stage” cancer. This study’s data seems to suggest that answer is yes.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The article fails to provide any information about the psychological & financial costs that result from false-positive mammography recalls & false-positive recommendations for biopsy.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This article focused on the significant reduction in false-positive mammograms among women who are screened for breast cancer every two years rather than every year.

Rather than stating that “more than half who received annual mammograms were called back at least once because of a false-positive,” it would help readers to know that the percentage was actually 61.3%.

And it was misleading in the lead sentence to say  “but the trade-off is a slightly higher risk of being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer…” while qualifying that two lines later – “But the increase in breast cancer diagnoses wasn’t statistically significant.”

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This piece briefly noted the anxiety caused by recall mammography but failed to point out that recall mammography may also cause inconvenience & that biopsies cause pain & scarring.  The article should also have mentioned the financial costs of recall mammograms & of biopsies.

The competing WebMD piece did mention anxiety, inconvenience, pain & scarring.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The article should have stated that few women underwent screening for the entire 10-year period and that the recall rates are influenced by the skill of the radiologists who read the mammograms.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There is no disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The piece includes a relevant quote about the benefits of the study from Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The article did remain focused on the key information regarding the reduction in false-positive recall mammograms & recommendations for biopsy that result from undergoing screening mammography biennally rather than annually.

Because readers are appropriately concerned about any possible effect less frequent screening may have on stage at diagnosis, this article should have included the crucial information that the slightly higher risk of being diagnosed with a later stage breast cancer was statistically insignificant.  That important fact was not addressed until two paragraphs after mentioning the higher risk.  Readers who read only the first paragraph or who skim an article may have easily missed the clarifying information about statistical significance in the third paragraph.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

Screening mammography is widely available throughout the United States.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Applicable

This is not a new procedure.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


This article includes a quote from the Principal Investigator, Rebecca Hubbard, Ph.D & from a breast surgeon.  It clearly does not rely solely on a press release.

Total Score: 4 of 8 Satisfactory


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