Hospitals and doctors are aggressively promoting high-tech breast cancer screenings, spending millions of dollars to market 3D mammograms to patients — despite no evidence that they save more lives than traditional mammograms.
According to a Kaiser Health News investigation, over the past six years manufacturers of 3D equipment have paid doctors and teaching hospitals more than $240 million, including $9.2 million related to 3D mammograms. Almost half of that money went to related research, while some paid for speaking fees, consulting, travel meals or drinks.
The report found that influential journal articles, some cited hundreds of times by other researchers, were written by doctors with financial ties to the 3D industry.
Currently, Medicare and most insurance companies cover the cost of an annual screening mammogram for women over the age of 40. But 3D screenings add about $50 to the cost of a typical mammogram. Kaiser reported that Medicare, which began paying for 3D exams in 2015, spent an additional $230 million on breast cancer screenings within the first three years of coverage. By 2017, nearly half the mammograms paid for by the federal program were 3D.
Overall, 3D screenings may slightly increase the cancer-detection rate, finding about one extra breast tumor for every 1,000 women screened in the U.S., according to a 2018 analysis in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It can also prove more effective for women with dense breast tissue.
But new technology isn’t always better, said Diana Zuckerman, president of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund at the National Center for Health Research.
“Hospitals love new gadgets, and 3D mammography has been promoted as the latest, greatest best thing,” Zuckerman told FOX Business. “It’s expensive, and then they’re going to pass those prices onto patients.”
When the Food and Drug Administration approves new technology, the agency is not required to prove that it’s better -- only that it’s as good as what already exists, she said. Despite that, the new equipment is generally more expensive, sometimes ten times as much; in order to pay for it, hospitals tend to charge “quite a lot of money” to the patient, Zuckerman said, as well as use them on patients who don’t necessarily need to be tested.
“I personally find it problematic, and I can only say that if I have trouble sometimes determining how much is hype and how much is fact, I can only imagine people who don’t do this for a living have trouble figuring it out,” she said.