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Friday, November 20, 2009

Pap smears and mammograms: what's the story?

If you've been watching the news, you may have seen some historic changes in recommendations about cancer prevention. There have been news releases regarding a change in the recommendations for mammogram screening by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Women in the 40-50 year old age group are now only encouraged to have regular mammograms if they are at increased risk of breast cancer, due to the fact that this test often finds non-existent of unimportant abnormalities in this age group that, on the whole, makes them less, not more, healthy. This will save women thousands of dollars and countless hours of time and energy at a time in their lives when that time and energy is a real gift.

Today I read that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology now recommends starting pap smear screening at 21 for most people, and reducing the frequency in that first decade to every 2 years. I have studied evidence based recommendations for pap smears for years, and the formula that makes sense is somewhat more complex than this, but in most cases our standard yearly pap smears are not necessary. This is based on the fact that some of the treatments for abnormal pap smears can make a women less healthy, less fertile, and that the whole process is expensive enough that honing it down to what is truly necessary makes excellent sense.

Cost is certainly not the only issue here, but diversion of significant money from womens' health funding in directions where it does no good hurts all of us. Google tells me that a mammogram costs around $100, and may cost as much as $200, and a pap smear runs about the same price. The cost of these tests in terms of comfort and dignity is not insignificant.

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