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Health Q&A: Mammogram's timing causes debate

Dr. Alan Hollingsworth, medical director of Mercy Women’s Center, answers a few questions about his perspective on when women should start being screened for breast cancer.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: April 26, 2014 at 10:00 am •  Published: April 26, 2014

The timetable of when a woman should get her first mammogram has long been up for debate.

Some organizations and medical professionals argue a woman should start at 40 years old whereas others say 50 is early enough and proven to allow enough time to save lives.

Dr. Alan Hollingsworth, medical director for Mercy Women’s Center and Breast MRI of Oklahoma, answered a few questions about his perspective on when women should start being screened for breast cancer.

Q. When did this debate begin?

A. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended against routine screening mammography among women 40 to 49 years.

Hollingsworth said most people think this is when the debate over breast cancer screenings began, but that’s not the case.

For example, in the early 1990s, the National Cancer Institute changed its position on the age at which a woman should be screened for breast cancer, and that produced similar outcry to the present-day debate over screening ages and timelines, he said.

Hollingsworth said he thought allowing the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force so much power in the conversation on screening guidelines was puzzling.

“It takes the people who know all of the nuances out of the picture, and you really have epidemiologists dictating how we practice medicine,” he said.

Q. What are the main issues around breast screenings on which scientists and doctors disagree?

A. The main points of contention exist over at what age — 40 or 50 — a woman should start being screened for breast cancer and how frequent she should be screened, once a year or every other year.

People often forget that most insurance companies weren’t willing to cover mammography until they were required by law to do so, he said. Mammography costs insurance companies billions each year, he said. If mammograms were cheap, there wouldn’t even be a debate over when to screen women, he said.

“Insurance companies ran the numbers, and figured out that it’s easier to treat cancer when it arises than screen for it,” he said.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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