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Key Differences Between Screening and Diagnostic Mammograms

X-ray technician performing mammography

Mammograms and associated forms of breast imaging are considered by many health authorities to be a vital component of a women’s health strategy. Research has proven the positive effect that regular mammograms have on female populations. They help reduce the number of fatalities due to breast cancer. Mammograms also help minimize the amount of medical intervention needed to treat cancer cases. They do this by catching cancers more quickly, and in disease stages that are easier to treat and eradicate. Because of this, women should plan to involve preventative scans in their health plans. This is especially important for women between the ages of 40 and 74, because the advantages of mammography scans are most numerous and prominent during this age range. For all women, it is recommended that they do not wait to discover indicators of cancer before receiving a mammogram.

Screening versus Diagnostic Procedures

For patients and physicians to effectively incorporate mammograms and preventative breast exam measures into a personal health portfolio, it is important to understand the basic procedures and nuances involved in the process. To start, imaging procedures should be divided into two basic categories, each with a different function. The first is a screening mammogram. Screening procedures are performed as a routine precaution. Most women’s health authorities recommend having a screening mammogram annually once a patient reaches 40 to 50 years of age, though screening mammograms may be recommended at an earlier age if the patient has certain risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer. These screening mammograms are not necessarily prompted by any indication of suspicious or irregular findings on the part of either the patient or their attending physician.

The other type of mammogram is referred to as a diagnostic mammogram. Diagnostic scans are ordered to further investigate the presence of an irregularity. Many scenarios call for diagnostic scanning. Perhaps the patient noticed an irregularity on their own and brought it to the attention of their primary physician. Perhaps an irregularity appeared during a routine breast exam that required further imaging clarification. Perhaps the patient showed other symptoms that indicated the possible presence of a breast ailment and a diagnostic mammogram was deemed necessary.

Different Types of Mammograms

There are several varieties of mammograms which a physician may request in either screening or diagnostic cases. The first is the most common and conventional form of mammogram and is achieved through film imaging. In this instance, the mammogram is captured on film and can be displayed via physical representation on a light board. The second form of mammogram is a digital version. This type of imaging is captured digitally and can be displayed on a computer monitor. The image can also be digitally synthesized, saved, stored, transferred and copied. Digital mammography is becoming the more standard choice due to the increased flexibility it affords its users. It is more useful at finding breast cancer in women who are pre- or peri-menopausal, under the age of 50, and have dense breast tissue. Another advantage of digital mammography is that is utilizes two-third less radiation than film mammography. The third type of imaging is three-dimensional mammography, which utilizes computer software to combine captured images into a 3-D representation or model of the patient’s breast. This type of imaging is still in its relative infancy. Its shorter development period and higher cost make it less common today than other forms of imaging. However, as the field develops, it is likely that 3-D imaging and other forms of digital collection and synthesis will become more prevalent. Any patient who is deciding on an imaging procedure would benefit from speaking with their physician about the types of imaging available and the advantages and risks of each option.

The Importance of Patient Education

Though physicians have ample education and training, it is incumbent on the patient to understand as much as possible before undergoing any type of medical procedure. This understanding enables the patient to make an informed decision after fully weighing the risks and anticipated medical gains.

Patients should always understand the risks that are associated with medical imaging scans before discussing the procedure with their physician. Though mammograms and other imaging procedures use very low doses of radiation and are considered safe, any exposure to ionizing radiation could be harmful. Medical imaging scans must only be performed in cases where the advantages of the scan much outweigh the potential risks.

Another facet of breast imaging that a patient should understand before receiving the procedure is the fact that medical imaging is not perfect. Out of a population of women receiving annual scanning mammograms over a period of 10 years, it has been estimated that 50 percent of those women will experience a false positive during that time period. From that false positive, physicians will extrapolate the presence of cancer and prescribe additional medical procedures (including imaging scans, biopsies, surgery or other measures). These ultimately superfluous medical measures could cost significant time, emotional energy, trauma and life-altering changes to the patient.

In addition, receiving routine mammograms does not guarantee that breast cancer or other dangers will always be caught before developing into something significant or perhaps even fatal. However, the more a patient is made aware of the potential risks and benefits of receiving preventative or diagnostic scans (versus not receiving them), the better able they are to make informed healthcare choices that could end up saving their life.

The more a patient knows about the processes, benefits and risks involved with mammography, the better equipped they are to make informed decisions alongside their physicians and healthcare providers. Screening and diagnostic mammograms, when correctly utilized, can provide key benefits. These procedures are already protecting and saving thousands of lives.

Learn More

The Adventist University of Health Sciences Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences online degree offers working imaging professionals an expanded opportunity to learn the technical, medical and people skills to help them continue their professional growth. Whether your goal is to provide a higher level of patient care or to advance your career by moving into management, education, consulting, or industry, the place to begin is with a Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences degree.

Recommended Readings

Innovations and Benefits of Mammography for Radiologists


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