Health Column: Digital mammography helps patients and radiologists

By Dr. John Niethammer
Blount Memorial Hospital

Much as been written about how the Blount Memorial Breast Health Center’s two new GE Senographe DS full-field digital mammography systems that were implemented earlier this year benefit patients. While the ergonomic paddle shapes certainly improve patient comfort and the digital technology does reduce the average patient’s screening exam time to only 10-15 minutes, the digital mammograms also offer important advantages to the radiologists who are interpreting the images.

Of course, any technology that offers a clearer more-detailed view will result in a more-precise diagnosis and, in turn, the most-effective treatment plan. So the added value of digital mammography for radiologists is passed directly on to the patient.

Let’s take a look at a couple of these important advantages. First, with digital mammograms, radiologists are able to do post-processing of the information gathered through the imaging. In the old days of traditional film screen mammograms, you took an X-ray, held it in your hands or up against a light board, and looked at it. What you saw was what you got. There wasn’t any way to get more in-depth information without taking additional images or doing additional testing.

With the digital technology, the radiologist is able to sit at a computer workstation and manipulate the image to get a clearer picture of what is going on. For example, if the breast tissue is dense, the radiologist can adjust the contrast to look deeper into the breast. As a result, very subtle differences between abnormal and normal but dense tissue can be made more obvious.

Some recent studies have shown that while film screen still is an accepted method for mammography, there are definite advantages associated with digital for women with dense breasts, women under the age of 50 and pre-menopausal women.

These studies found that smaller cancers were detected earlier using the digital technology.

Another advantage of digital mammography for radiologists is the ability to store old studies in a computer archive system.

Now we can compare old and new images side-by-side on a computer screen. As we build an archive of images from multiple years, we can have the current view of the right breast, for example, on one side of the monitor and scroll back through the earlier images to see if and how the breast tissue has changed.

As I mentioned, all the benefits for radiologists also are patient benefits because the result is faster, more-accurate images. But even radiologists realize that as advanced as digital mammography is, this technology only is one tool in the effort to detect breast cancer in its earliest, most-treatable stages.

In fact, some cancers are not detected through a mammogram, but are found during a self-exam or clinical exam. That is why monthly self-exams and regular clinical exams by a health care professional are essential for optimum breast health and early cancer detection.

To schedule a mammogram during this month’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, call the Blount Memorial Breast Health Center at 865-977-5590.

Dr. John Niethammer is a radiologist with LeConte Radiology and Blount Memorial Hospital. He is board-certified by the American Board of Radiology, and chairs the hospital’s radiology department.

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