Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=101063
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 3:52:11 PM CST
Data from the federal Mammography Quality Standards Act, courtesy of the American College of Radiology.
A woman receiving a mammogram at any of the Loyola Medical Center’s facilities may not notice a difference in her experience. But behind the scenes, it’s a whole new world.
Loyola has now completely updated all of its facilities to digital mammography, as opposed to mammograms recorded on film.
The new systems will allow the radiologists who read the tests to do so faster since there is no waiting for films to be developed. Another bonus is increased accuracy due to the clarity of the images.
The only difference patients might notice between traditional film mammograms and digital mammograms is that the exam is faster because a technician doesn’t have to change film cassettes.
Unfortunately, the squeezing needed to take the image - the part of the mammogram that so many women dread - is still in place.
“We have to get optimum compression to diagnose cancer,” said Dr. Kathleen Ward, medical director of women’s health imaging at Loyola. “It’s worth the discomfort to diagnose early. That’s why we’ve been able to improve survival rates, because of early detection.”
Medical centers across the city and across the country are converting to digital mammography since a study published in 2005 reported increased accuracy for women under the age of 50, women with dense breast tissue or pre- or peri-menopausal women. Several universities and hospitals participated in the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In practice, hospitals using digital mammography will use it for all patients.
“In 2005, about 8 percent of facilities were completely digital for mammography,” said Shawn Farley of the American College of Radiology. “Now 39 percent are digital. It’s only going to continue to increase.”
There are many aspects of digital mammograms that make them better than film, according to Ward.
“It’s perfect for mammograms,” she said. “You can manipulate the image: magnify it or adjust the contrast. You can see enhancements of the skin that aren’t available in traditional mammography.” That all means more accurate diagnosis.
In addition to obtaining the images more quickly, doctors can retrieve older images for comparison instantly with digital files rather than digging through folders of films.
“The ability to store and retrieve scans helps us since we have satellite clinics,” Ward said.
So if digital mammography is clearly superior to film mammography, why doesn’t everyone use it? As usual, it comes down to cost. For example, a General Electric digital mammography system has a cost of $300,000, said GE spokesman Brian McKaig.
For institutions with multiple locations, such as Loyola, complete conversion to digital technology could mean a significant investment.
Patients don’t need to worry about their doctor’s ability to read digital images, even if they’ve been using film all along, according to Ward. Radiologists need to be qualified to read digital mammograms and it’s part of the training process for most medical students and radiology residents now. Ward said she is confident in the ability of radiologists to read the images.
“If you have a lot of experience in mammography, I don’t think it’s difficult to make the transition,” she said.