Breast cancer screening guidelines confuse doctors and patients

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently released their recommendations for breast cancer screening.

Previously, they had recommended a mammogram every 1 to 2 years for women between the ages of 40 to 49.

Now, they recommend more intensive screening:

Due to the high incidence of breast cancer in the US and the potential to reduce deaths from it when caught early, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College) today issued new breast cancer screening guidelines that recommend mammography screening be offered annually to women beginning at age 40. Previous College guidelines recommended mammograms every one to two years starting at age 40 and annually beginning at age 50.

This contradicts the 2009 recommendation from the USPSTF, which recommended an individualized approach and against routine screening for women aged 40-49.

No wonder patients are confused.

In our society, which values tests and generally believes that earlier cancer detection is better care, the ACOG recommendations were met with media acclaim.

Gary Schwitzer, for instance,  points out the bias in CNN’s reporting the guidelines, and specifically takes senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen’s Tweet on the issue to task:

On many occasions that we’ve written about on this blog in recent years, CNN has demonstrated a bias in favor of screening – touting benefits, minimizing harms. Sanjay Gupta’s badgering of US Preventive Services Task Force member Lucy Marion will always stand out in my mind – and in the minds of many of who saw it – as opinionated “attack” journalism that reflects the polarization we often see in politics now creeping (leaping?) into health care and into health care journalism.

As to which guideline to believe, physicians will be divided. I suspect that physicians who practice more strict evidence-based medicine will go with the USPSTF recommendations, while gynecologists will follow their college’s more aggressive recommendations.

Although I’m a proponent of clinical guidelines, obtaining the needed consensus will be difficult. There are too many proverbial cooks in the pot, with every medical society releasing potentially conflicting recommendations and confusing both doctors and patients.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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