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Hospital gets digital mammography

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By Lisa King

For the past three weeks, Jewish Hospital has been using new technology to perform breast exams.

Mammographer Retta Wilson said the new, $446,000 full-field digital mammography (FFDM) unit has increased both the effectiveness and quality of the hospital's breast exams.

The FFDM is the latest technology in which the digital image allows for instantaneous screen display on an acquisition workstation. The unit can be used for screening and/or diagnostic images.

The new equipment has several advantages over the old mammography unit, Wilson said.

One important feature is a soft, flexible pad which is much more comfortable to the breast than the old metal ones which were often painful when pressed against the breast. Also, the new pad won't pull on the patient's skin as the old one did. The unit also has a feature which lets the technician know when there is adequate compression on the breast.

"When we get this number, then we know it's going to give the radiologist an optimal picture," Wilson said.

Another important advantage of the new machinery is that it works more quickly. Before, a breast exam took about 20 minutes.

"There was a patient I worked with this morning, I started imaging her at 8:58 a.m. and had her back at 9:02 [a.m.]," Wilson said. "So in four minutes, I had her exam done."

Wilson said one reason the new unit takes less time is that digital technology is quicker and less work than working with film.

"Before, we used to have to go and take the images into the dark room and process the film," she said. "It's just like a film camera compared to a digital camera."

She said that since the hospital started using the new equipment April 3, they are able to perform an average of six more exams a day. She added that mammograms are not just for women.

"It's not common, but men can also have breast cancer, or other complications with their breasts," she said, adding that on average, about one man per month comes in for a mammogram.

Steve Moffett, director of medical imaging at Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, said that not only are the exams done more quickly, but also the images are more detailed. This is very important, because the new equipment can detect some types of breast cancers, such as micro-calcifications, much earlier than the old unit did. While most micro-calcificatons (tiny calcium deposits) are benign, in a small number of cases, a cluster of these deposits in one area could be a sign of pre-cancerous changes in the breast, or a very early breast cancer.

The FFDM unit is able to find these cells as much as three years earlier than the previous equipment. Wilson said that in many women, these cells won't be large enough for a woman to notice herself for five to seven years. This very early detection gives a woman a much greater chance to save her breast, she added.

Overall, Moffett said, this technology will save more lives than the old breasts scans did. Another advantage, he added, is the digital image can be read immediately and the patient won't have to go through an period of anxiety, waiting to be contacted about the results of her exam.

"This will eliminate a lot of that waiting," he said.

In addition to all these advantages, along with the new unit, the hospital has also gotten new smocks for the women to wear.

"We have these new capes, now," said Glen Cole, R.T., clinical manager in medical imaging. "Women love them. They're wrap-around, and one size fits all. They love them because nothing pops out."

Cole added that also, since the darkroom is no longer needed, that room will be turned into a lounge/waiting area for patients.

As with any new technology, patients are concerned about whether their insurance will pay for it.

Cole said that though insurance does cover digital mammography, it is more expensive. But patients shouldn't worry, she added, because insurance reimbursement is 35 percent higher in order to offset that cost.

Moffett said that also, the fact that digital technology is detecting problems much sooner will keep medical costs down in the long run.

Support

Mammographer Carla Smith said she wishes this equipment had been invented in time to save her own mother, who died of breast cancer many years ago.

Not only did her mother not survive the cancer, but she didn't have a cancer support group to turn to, either, Smith said.

"She didn't talk about it, but she must have felt very lonely, not having anyone to talk to about it," she said.

Smith changed all that for women 15 years ago, when she started the Life After Breast Cancer support group at the hospital.

"It not only gives women a chance to talk with other women who have had breast cancer, but it also enables them to talk more openly about it with their own friends and family members," she said. "It's a real positive experience for them."

The group, which meets every second Thursday of the month, is open to any one who has had breast cancer.

Heading up the support group, which leads the candlelight service at the Relay for Life, also is therapeutic for herself, Smith said.

"I couldn't do anything to help my mom, but I can help these women," she said. "And most of them are somebody's mother."

American Cancer Society recommends:

Women over 40

Get an annual mammogram

Have an annual clinical breast exam

Perform monthly breast self-exams

Women 20-30

Have a clinical breast exam every 3 years

Perform monthly breast self-exams

To reduce risk of breast cancer

Limit alcohol intake

Maintain healthy weight

Exercise regularly

To learn more, visit www.cancer.org