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New Mammography Guidelines Jolt Medical Field

Doctors Predict By-product of Screening Debate: More Talk With Patients About Mammograms
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Debate Over Screening Mammograms continued...

Leading medical groups, though, immediately announced their own guidelines had not changed. The American Cancer Society reiterated its guideline for annual screening mammography for all women beginning at age 40. The organization says it reviewed "virtually all the same data" that the task force scrutinized. “The lifesaving benefits of screening outweigh any potential harms,’’ says Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

And the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says it continues to recommend regular screening mammograms every one to two years for women in their 40s, annual screening for women 50 and older, and self-examination for breast cancer.

No Changes in Insurance Coverage

With health care reform percolating in the background, the mammography discussion immediately shifted to how the new advice would affect insurance coverage.

The leading health insurance trade group says insurers would maintain the status quo on mammograms. “Our interpretation is that women should be talking to their doctors, and if their doctor orders the test, then it would be covered,’’ says Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans. “We’ve advocated for women to get screened. That hasn’t changed. Doctors and patients should be talking about benefits and harms.’’

Secretary of Health and Human Services Department Kathleen Sebelius admits the recommendations "caused a great deal of confusion and worry among women and their families," and emphasizes that the department's policies remain unchanged.

Women who are currently getting mammograms under Medicare will continue to be able to get them, says a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Medicare is the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older and the disabled.

How the new guidelines will affect private employer coverage is unclear, according to benefits consulting firm Mercer. “It is too soon to tell," says Mercer spokeswoman Stephanie Poe, adding that there is "too much conflicting advice" for employers to know if or how they would change their benefits plans.

Guidelines Often Change

The task force advice, meanwhile, offers an example of how the practice of medicine is not set in stone, doctors say.  

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