, Volume 16, Issue 11, pp 779-784

Screening mammography for frail older women

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OBJECTIVE: The potential benefits and harms of screening mammography in frail older women are unknown. Therefore, we studied the outcomes of a screening mammography policy that was instituted in a population of community-living nursing home-eligible women as a result of requirements of state auditors. We focused on the potential burdens that may be experienced.

METHODS: Between January 1995 and December 1997, we identified 216 consecutive women who underwent screening mammography after enrolling in a program designed to provide comprehensive care to nursing home-eligible patients who wished to stay at home. Mammograms were performed at 4 radiology centers. From computerized medical records, we tracked each woman through September 1999 for performance and results of mammography, additional breast imaging and biopsies, documentation of psychological reactions to screening, as well as vital status. Mean follow-up was 2.6 years.

RESULTS: The mean age of the 216 women was 81 years. Sixty-three percent were Asian, 91% were dependent in at least 1 activity of daily living, 49% had cognitive impairment, and 11% died within 2 years. Thirty-eight women (18%) had abnormal mammograms requiring further work-up. Of these women, 6 refused work-up, 28 were found to have false-positive mammograms after further evaluation, 1 was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and 3 were diagnosed with local breast cancer. The woman diagnosed with DCIS and 1 woman diagnosed with breast cancer were classified as not having benefited, because screening identified clinically insignificant disease that would not have caused symptoms in the womenśs lifetimes, since these women died of unrelated causes within 2 years of diagnosis. Therefore, 36 women (17%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 12 to 22) experienced burden from screening mammography (28 underwent work-up for false-positive mammograms, 6 refused further work-up of an abnormal mammogram, and 2 had clinically insignificant cancers identified and treated). Forty-two percent of these women had chart-documented pain or psychological distress as a result of screening. Two women (0.9%; 95% CI, 0 to 2) may have received benefit from screening mammography.

CONCLUSION: We conclude that screening mammography in frail older women frequently necessitates work-up that does not result in benefit, raising questions about policies that use the rate of screening mammograms as an indicator of the quality of care in this population. Encouraging individualized decisions may be more appropriate and may allow screening to be targeted to older women for whom the potential benefit outweighs the potential burdens.

An abstract of this study was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine in Boston, May 2000, and at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society in Chicago, May 2001.
Dr. Walter was supported by grants from the John A. Hartford Foundation and the National Institute on Aging (5 T32 AG00212-09). Dr. Covinsky was supported in part by a clinical investigator award from the National Institute on Aging (K23AG00714-061) and is a Paul Beeson Faculty Scholar in Aging Research.