Behavior within a Clinical Trial and Implications for Mammography Guidelines

Mammography guidelines have weakened in response to evidence that mammograms diagnose breast cancers that would never eventually cause symptoms, a phenomenon called “overdiagnosis.” Given concerns about overdiagnosis, instead of recommending mammograms, US guidelines encourage women aged 40-49 to get them as they see fit. To assess whether these guidelines target women effectively, I propose an approach that examines mammography behavior within an influential clinical trial that followed participants long enough to find overdiagnosis. I find that women who are more likely to receive mammograms are healthier and have higher socioeconomic status. More importantly, I find that the 20-year level of overdiagnosis is at least 3.5 times higher among women who are most likely to receive mammograms. At least 36% of their cancers are overdiagnosed. These findings imply that US guidelines encourage mammograms among healthier women who are more likely to be overdiagnosed by them. Guidelines in other countries do not.

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