One of the papers that we studied during our Harvard Medical School “big data” course in February was “National Expenditure For False-Positive Mammograms And Breast Cancer Overdiagnoses Estimated At $4 Billion A Year” (Health Affairs 34:4, 2015). The researchers used a data set of 4 billion insurance claims to see what was going on in the U.S. population. We learned that screening mammograms are not helpful compared to waiting for a lump to show up. There are a lot of things that look bad on a mammogram that aren’t, in fact, bad.
Americans fell in love with mammograms:
- Obama talks about Mammograms on Jay Leno (are either of these guys experts on breasts or radiology?)
- Hillary Clinton expressed faith in mammograms back in 2008
- the central planners behind Obamacare continue to force insurance companies to pay for 100 percent of the cost of mammograms every 1-2 years (see healthcare.gov)
Why do we love them so much? It turns out that the five-year survival rates for breast cancer were improved after women en masse got put through the mammography industry. Why would anyone want to stop doing something that improved five-year survival rates?
It turned out that the statistical cure for breast cancer because of mammography was due to the fact that women who did not have cancer were being treated for cancer. They hadn’t been killed by cancer five years later because… they never had cancer to begin with.
So we wrapped ourselves around the axle with data that we weren’t smart enough to comprehend.
(Separately, we learned during this medical school class that it takes approximately 17 years for an identified “best practice” to be adopted by physicians nationwide. Thus we can expect Americans to back off on their love for mammography perhaps in 2032.)