Digital Mammography: Is Newer Always Better?

By Rachel Walden — December 13, 2013

Mammogram machineYou may have noticed last time you got a mammogram that the facility used digital imaging rather than traditional X-ray film.

Why is that? And, are there any benefits to the newer techniques?

In 2009, when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reviewed the evidence and updated its recommendations on breast cancer screening, it concluded there was not enough evidence to assess the benefits and harms of digital vs. film mammography, due to a lack of studies on the effectiveness of the two methods. (To re-cap, the USPSTF recommends that for women with no increased risk of breast cancer, the decision to start screening before age 50 should be an individual one, rather than a general recommendation. After age 50, the USPSTF recommends screening every two years, up to age 74. There has been some controversy about the guidelines due to concerns about harms of routine mammograms – for for more information, see our related posts, The Benefits and Harms of Routine Mammograms and Do Screening Mammograms Do More Harm Than Good?)

The USPSTF noted that both screening methods may detect some cancers that are not identified by the other, but that overall detection is similar for many women. It found that the chance of false-positives (indication of cancer where it doesn’t exist) is similar in both types.

The Digital Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial (DMIST), published in 2005, is the most important trial of digital vs. film mammography for breast cancer screening to date. The study compared the accuracy of both methods in almost 50,000 women and concluded they’re similar in their effectiveness — neither technology was able to detect 100 percent of the cancers examined.

That said, researchers found digital to be the better tool for women under age 50, or who have very dense breast tissue, or are still menstruating. But it showed no benefit in terms of accuracy for women with all three criteria. And there was no difference in accuracy by race, breast cancer risk, or type of digital machine used.

The DMIST trial was not designed to compare differences in mortality rates among women who underwent different imaging — so it can’t answer the all-important question of whether digital mammography could save more lives than film.

Still, as the National Cancer Institute notes, some health care providers recommend women with a very high risk of breast cancer — women with BRCA1 or 2 genetic mutations, for example, or extremely dense breasts — get digital rather than conventional mammograms, even though no studies have shown that digital is better at reducing these women’s risk of death.

When examining a new medical technology, one consideration is how much the technology costs compared with how many years of quality life may be gained by using it. At least one trial has indicated that screening all women with digital mammograms was not cost-effective, because digital costs more and doesn’t improve health outcomes when used so broadly. Targeting women for digital mammography based on age (i.e., using digital for women under 50) appears to be more cost-effective than using film or digital for all women. The study concluded that a shift to all-digital mammography “has the potential to result in health gains for younger women (especially those with dense breasts) possibly at the expense of older women (especially those with non-dense breasts).”

Unfortunately, providers may not give women a choice. Some health care systems have simply switched over to digital, and individual providers may refer women for a mammography without indicating which type they will receive. In some cases, referrals for digital mammography may be linked to a provider’s investment in the machines, since evidence suggests that doctors are more likely to recommend expensive medical technologies when they have a financial stake in them, even if the procedure isn’t supported by medical evidence.

Medicare also reimburses more for digital screening exams than for film, creating a financial incentive for clinics and hospitals to conduct digital scans instead of film ones.

Digital mammography does have other benefits over film: digital files can be enhanced and manipulated in ways film cannot, and electronic images can be readily shared with clinicians at other locations, which may particularly benefit rural and underserved communities using telemedicine for reading and interpreting mammograms. Finally, digital mammograms may have a slightly lower radiation dose than film (although this may not be meaningful in terms of radiation-related risks, since the radiation dose with either type is very low).

These potential benefits may not justify a switch to digital mammography for all women. The USPSTF notes: “Consumer expectations that new technology is better than old may obscure potential adverse effects, such as higher false-positive results and expense. No screening trials incorporating newer technology have been published.”

So, when your doctor refers you for a mammogram, ask:

  • Are you referring me for a digital or a film mammogram?
  • If you are under 50 years of age: Why do you believe I need a mammogram at this time? Am I in a higher risk group? (This is important if you don’t know that you have any factors that may put you at increased risk).
  • Do you have a financial stake in the mammography facility?

You can also ask your insurer if a film mammogram would cost you less. Many women’s screening mammograms are completely covered by insurance, but costs can vary widely, so it’s good to confirm what the charges will be in advance.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December issue of The Women’s Health Activist, the newsletter of the National Women’s Health Network.

Photo: themozhi’s pixel display

One response to “Digital Mammography: Is Newer Always Better?”

  1. The description of the radiation risks of (digital) mammography is presented here as if it isn’t a big deal. The author of this article thus merely propagates the faulty notion of the medical establishment and the cancer industry. So called low dose or very lose dose medical x-rays are known to cause cancer, especially breast cancer (see “The Mammogram Myth: The Independent Investigation Of Mammography The Medical Profession Doesn’t Want You To Know About” by Rolf Hefti). Women keep being misguided by disinformation about breast cancer and mammograms, thereby paying a steep price.

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