Mammogram Theater: A Visual Aid For Medical Decision-Making

With a title like "mammogram theatre" you would wonder if this post is meant to poke fun at the elaborate song and dance of mammography; we have spent years promising women that "early detection is key," only to realize that screening mammography cannot do what we originally hoped it could (but many still pretend it can).

Of course women want their breasts and lives saved. But the information on the benefits of mammography has been largely overstated in part due to cognitive biases (like lead-time bias, base-rate fallacy, etc), and the risks are too often left out of the conversation.

Every test has risk and benefits, but it can be challenging to decide if a test or treatment is right for you or your patient when there is too much information, experts disagree when they review the same studies, and the media has a constant see-saw back and forth of "yes" and "no" headlines that seem only to confuse. It can feel a bit like ping-pong, following the discussion back and forth. It's not really fair to ask patients to make sense of all this.

So yes, the promise of benefit of mammography may have been a bit of dramatization, but the theatre I speak of is a literal one. 

Dr. Andrew Lazris is an American internist who partnered with environmental scientist Erik Rifkin to popularize a simple, easy way of showing how many are helped and harmed by common tests and procedures.

Lazris and Rifkin have developed a tool to give people a realistic way of evaluating 'hope and worry;'

Their "benefit-risk characterization theater" images vividly show the odds, based on solid research. (read more on NPR)

This is a tool to help doctors and patients have informed discussions about the risks and benefits of breast cancer screening with mammography, to engage in shared-decision making on the topic. Take a look:

This tool has been added to the "hands-on tools" section of this website, where you can find other tools like it.