Task Force Member Defends Mammography Guidelines

THURSDAY, Nov. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Responding to the uproar over revised mammogram recommendations unveiled earlier this week, a member of the independent task force that crafted the recommendations defended them Thursday, saying they were based on the most current, accurate information available.

Dr. Timothy Wilt, a member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, defended the recommendation that most women don't need to get mammograms in their 40s and should get one every two years starting at age 50. That recommendation runs counter to the American Cancer Society's long-held stance that women should get a yearly mammogram starting at age 40.

The task force's recommendations "were based on the most rigorous peer review of up-to-date, accurate information about the evidence about the harms and benefits of treatment," Wilt said on ABC's Good Morning America, the Associated Press reported.

On Wednesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius responded to the controversy that followed the release of the task force recommendations on Monday. She said the USPSTF does "not set federal policy and they don't determine what services are covered by the federal government."

Sebelius added that American women should "keep doing what you've been doing for years -- talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions, and make the decision that is right for you."

She also said she'd be "very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage decisions as a result of this action."

Wilt did not take issue with Sebelius' statement. "Our recommendations support an individualized decision-making process," he said, and each woman still needs to talk with her doctor to make the most informed decision, the AP reported.

In reaching its recommendations, the task force of doctors and scientists determined that early and frequent mammograms often lead to false-positive readings and unnecessary biopsies, without substantially improving the odds of survival for women under 50.

Reaction to the proposed guidelines has been swift.

Critics such as the American Cancer Society vowed to stand by its advice that annual screening begin at age 40 for women of average risk. The American College of Radiology agreed.

But what will doctors who see female patients day after day suggest they do?

The guidelines recommend that women aged 40 to 49 and at average risk for breast cancer talk to their doctor about when it would be best for them to begin mammography screening. Those aged 50 to 74 should have every-other-year screenings, rather than an annual mammogram, according to the new guidelines. As for women aged 75 and older, the task force concluded that there is not enough evidence to assess the benefits and harms of the test.

Whether they agree or disagree with the guidelines, experts seem to agree that women should talk to their health-care providers for guidance based on their individual medical history and other factors.

Three such providers -- an internist, a family physician and a gynecologist -- weigh in on what they will advise their patients to do.

An Internist's View

"The evidence supports the recommendation," said Dr. Karla Kerlikowske, director of the Women Veteran's Comprehensive Health Center at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who wrote an editorial accompanying publication of the guidelines in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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