New research suggests that billions are spent each year on unnecessary health costs associated with misread mammograms, which result in breast cancer misdiagnosis and over-treatment of tumors that do not actually pose a threat.
In a study published in the April issue of the medical journal Health Affairs, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital looked at the cost of false-positive mammography findings and the overdiagnosis of breast cancer. The findings suggest that, combined, the issues cost the U.S. $4 billion annually among women between the ages of 40 and 59.
Researchers looked at expenditure data from a major U.S. health care insurance company involving more than 700,000 women between 2011 to 2013. They found that the costs associated with false-positive mammogram, invasive breast cancer, and ductal carcinoma in situ were much higher than previously believed.
Treating breast cancer costs $51,837 on average per case, and ductal carcinoma cases cost $12,369. Researchers estimate that about 22% of breast cancer cases were misdiagnosis or over treatment. They determined that 86% of ductal carcinoma cases were misdiagnoses.
Mammograms cost $852 each, but were much more common. The researchers estimate that about 11% of those are false-positives, meaning they indicated a women had cancer when she did not. In fact, mammogram cancer misdiagnosis costs the U.S. $2.8 billion each year.
Breast cancer overdiagnosis, where tumors are believed to be more of a problem than they actually are, resulting in overtreatment, costs $1.2 billion per year.
The study comes amid debate over when and how often women should get screened for breast cancer, which kills nearly 41,000 U.S. women every year. Previously, mammograms were recommended for all women starting at 40 years of age, but recently that has been heavily debated.
These findings, which resulted in a much higher cost for breast cancer misdiagnosis than anticipated, is likely to add to the ongoing debate.
“The costs associated with false-positive mammograms and breast cancer overdiagnoses appear to be much higher than previously documented,” the researchers concluded. “Screening has the potential to save lives. However, the economic impact of false-positive mammography results and breast cancer overdiagnoses must be considered in the debate about the appropriate populations for screening.”
Officials from the American Cancer Society are already pushing back against the study’s findings, saying that it does not factor in all the lives saved by screening and early detection, which probably save the U.S. healthcare system a significant amount of money by avoiding chemotherapy and other expensive treatments and drugs for advanced stage breast cancer.