US Mammogram Update Sparks Concern, Reignites Debates

Kerry Dooley Young

July 19, 2023

A recent update to the US recommendations for breast cancer screening is raising concerns about the costs associated with potential follow-up tests, while also renewing debates about the timing of these tests and the screening approaches used.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is currently finalizing an update to its recommendations on breast cancer screening. In May, the task force released a proposed update that dropped the initial age for routine mammogram screening from 50 to 40.

The task force intends to give a "B" rating to this recommendation, which covers screening every other year up to age 74 for women deemed average risk for breast cancer.

The task force's rating carries clout, A. Mark Fendrick, MD, director of the Value-Based Insurance Design (V-BID) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, told Medscape.

For one, the Affordable Care Act requires that private insurers cover services that get top A or B marks from USPSTF without charging copays.

However, Fendrick noted, such coverage does not necessarily apply to follow-up testing when a routine mammogram comes back with a positive finding. The expense of follow-up testing may deter some women from seeking follow-up diagnostic imaging or biopsies after an abnormal result on a screening mammogram.

A recent analysis in JAMA Network Open found that women facing higher anticipated out-of-pocket costs for breast cancer diagnostic tests, based on their health insurance plan, were less likely to get that follow-up screening. For instance, the use of breast MRI decreased by nearly 24% between patients undergoing subsequent diagnostic testing in plans with the lowest out-of-pocket costs vs those with the highest.

"The study’s central finding — that some women who have an abnormal result on a mammogram may not get appropriate follow-up because of cost — is worrisome," said Fendrick and Ilana B. Richman, MD, MHS, in an accompanying commentary to the JAMA analysis. "On an individual level, high out-of-pocket costs may directly contribute to worse health outcomes or require individuals to use scarce financial resources that may otherwise be used for critical items such as food or rent."

For patients to fully benefit from early detection, the USPSTF would also need to make clear that follow-up diagnostic mammograms are covered, Fendrick said.

The Ongoing Debates

Concerns over the costs of potential follow-up tests are not the only issues experts have highlighted since USPSTF released its updated draft guidance on screening mammography.

The task force's proposed update has also reignited questions and uncertainties surrounding when to screen, how often, and what types are best.

When it comes to frequency, the major organizations that provide screening guidance don't see eye to eye. The USPSTF recommends breast cancer screening every other year, while the American College of Radiology (ACR) recommends screening every year because that approach leads to saves "the most lives."

At this time, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidance currently teeters in the middle, suggesting either annual or biennial screening and highlighting the pros and cons of either approach. According to ACOG, "annual screening intervals appear to result in the least number of breast cancer deaths, particularly in younger women, but at the cost of additional callbacks and biopsies."

When to begin screening represents another point of contention. While some experts, such as ACOG, agree with the task force's decision to lower the screening start age to 40, others point to the need for greater nuance on setting the appropriate screening age. The main issue: the task force's draft sets a uniform age to begin screening, but the risk for breast cancer and breast cancer mortality is not uniform across different racial and ethnic groups.

A recent study published in JAMA Network Open found that, among women aged 40 to 49, breast cancer mortality was highest among Black women (27 deaths per 100,000 person-years) followed by White women (15 deaths per 100,000 person-years). Based on a recommended screening age of 50, the authors suggested that Black women should start screening at age 42, whereas White women could start at 51.

"These findings suggest that health policy makers and clinicians could consider an alternative, race and ethnicity–adapted approach in which Black female patients start screening earlier," write Tianhui Chen, PhD, of China’s Zhejiang Cancer Hospital and co-authors of the study.

Weighing in on the guidance, the nonprofit National Center for Health Research urged the task force to consider suggesting different screening schedules based on race and ethnicity data. That would mean the recommendation to start at age 40 should only apply to Black women and other groups with higher-than-average risk for breast cancer at a younger age.

"Women are capable of understanding why the age to start mammography screening may be different for women with different risk factors," the National Center for Health Research wrote in a comment to USPSTF, provided to Medscape by request. "What is confusing is when some physician groups recommend annual mammograms for all women starting at age 40, even though the data do not support that recommendation."

While the ACR agreed with the task force's recommendation to lower the screening age, the organization suggested starting risk assessments based on racial variations in breast cancer incidence and death even earlier. Specifically, the ACR recommended that high-risk groups, such as Black women, get risk assessments by age 25 to determine whether mammography before age 40 is needed.    

Screening options for women with dense breasts may be some of the most challenging to weigh. Having dense breasts increases an individual's risk for breast cancer, and mammography alone is not as effective at identifying breast cancer among these women. However, the evidence on the benefits vs harms of additional screening beyond mammography remains mixed.  

As a result, the task force decided to maintain its "I" grade on additional screening beyond mammography for these women — a grade that indicates insufficient evidence to determine the benefits and harms for a service.

The task force largely based its decision on the findings of two key reports. One report from the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network, which modeled potential outcomes of different screening strategies, indicated that extra screening might reduce breast cancer mortality in those with dense breasts, but at a cost of more false-positive reports.

The second report, a review from the Kaiser Permanente Evidence-based Practice Center, reaffirmed the benefits of routine mammography for reducing deaths from breast cancer, but found no solid evidence that different strategies — including supplemental screening in women with denser breasts — lowered breast cancer mortality or the risk of progression to advanced cancer. Further studies may show which approaches work best to reduce breast cancer deaths, the report said.

In this instance, ACOG agreed with USPSTF: "Based on the lack of data, ACOG does not recommend routine use of alternative or adjunctive tests to screening mammography in women with dense breasts who are asymptomatic and have no additional risk factors."

Women with dense breasts should still be encouraged to receive regular screening mammography, even if the results they get may not be as accurate as those for women with less dense breasts, said Diana L. Miglioretti, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, who worked on a report for the USPSTF guidelines.

What's Next?

Despite ongoing debate and uncertainties surrounding some breast screening guidance, support for ending copay requirements for follow-up tests after a positive mammogram finding is widespread.

According to Fendrick, the USPSTF should expand coverage of follow-up testing after a positive mammogram to ensure people receive routine screening and any necessary diagnostic tests, as it did with colon cancer.

Before 2021, patients could face high costs for a colonoscopy following a positive stool-based Cologuard test. But in 2021, the USPSTF said that positive results on stool-based tests would require follow-up with colonoscopy, defining this follow-up as part of the screening benefit. In 2022, Medicare followed by setting a policy that ended the copay for these follow-up colonoscopies.

For breast screening, there are efforts underway in Congress to end copays for breast screening. In May, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill, the Find It Early Act, that would require both private and government insurers to cover the out-of-pocket costs for many women receiving screening with ultrasound and MRI. 

When the USPSTF finalizes its breast screening guidelines, the recommendations will be woven into discussions between primary care physicians and patients about breast cancer screening.

As guidelines and evidence evolve, "we're learning to adjust" and communicate these changes to patients, said Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

However, gaps in the guidance will leave some open-ended questions about optimal screening practices and how much screening may cost.

Given that, Iroku-Malize takes many factors into account when discussing screening options with her patients. Based on the new information and the patient's information, she said she will tell her patients, "We're going to adjust our guidance as to what you need."

Kerry Dooley Young is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @kdooleyyoung.

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