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Digital Mammograms Won't Make Screening More Comfortable


WebMD Health News

March 9, 2001 -- Despite the hype, digital mammography does not mean that your next cancer screening will be minus the breast-squashing cold paddles and the multiple images the technician shoots. Although it's one of the latest methods of identifying possible breast masses and abnormalities, experts say the jury is still out on whether it even provides better detection or diagnosis.

Initial studies indicate digital technology is at least as effective as traditional film mammography. It also offers the potential of preventing the loss of patients' visual records and of the availability of breast screening in remote areas, according to radiologists. At the same time, some of the positive features actually could slow image analysis, and upfront equipment costs may preclude many clinics from using the devices.

"There hasn't proven to be any difference between the film and the digital imaging for diagnosis," says Marilyn Roubidoux, MD, acting director of the University of Michigan Health System Breast Division. But the studies showing it's equally as good as film mammography are limited. The radiologist tells WebMD that a lot more testing is necessary to conclusively evaluate its benefits.

"I like digital imaging, but women should not feel that if they aren't getting digital then they are getting a substandard exam," Roubidoux cautions. "Having a good, skilled, competent radiologist is more important than which technology is used."

She and University of Pennsylvania Health System radiologist Susan Orel, MD, agree that the digital imaging means loss of films is less likely. The technology also will make storage of visual records simpler and ease the process of obtaining second opinions or transferring the information if a patient changes doctors.

With a standard mammography, the X-ray images pass through the breast and are imaged on film. But with the digital technology, the X-ray vision is fed directly into a computer then viewed on a monitor. Because of this, the radiologist reading the mammography can adjust the contrast and brightness of the image and enlarge areas that look suspicious.

"This is a big advantage for the patient because they won't have to keep coming back to have more images taken," says Orel. While this may save some time and inconvenience, don't expect your breast screening to be any more pleasant than ones you've experienced before.

"The patients have a misconception of digital mammography," Orel says. "The discomfort is just the same; it's really the same type of equipment."

Not only that, but she and Roubidoux also say that if you've found you have to schedule your annual breast cancer screening months in advance then wait for a long time for results, don't expect the new equipment to ease that backup.

"The digital imaging doesn't make me any faster," says Roubidoux, a radiology associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. "It may even take me longer." She and Orel explain that this is due to one of the advantages of the new technology: the ability to manipulate the image in order to see it better.

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