The Effect of False-Positive Mammo Results on Patient Anxiety

April 28, 2014

A false-positive mammogram result leaves women anxious, but new research shows that the anxiety is short-lived and may have an unintended beneficial effect.

False-positive mammography results may briefly raise anxiety levels in women, but the effect soon dissipates and does not impact future screening plans, according to an analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study, which analyzed survey data from over 1,000 women who had a mammogram at one of 22 sites, ultimately showed that false-positive mammograms don’t impact quality of life in a measurable way. 

Pertinent Points

- Women who receive a false-positive mammography result may briefly have an increase in anxiety, but the heightened anxiety doesn’t persist and doesn’t alter future screening plans.

- In fact, women
with false-positive mammograms were more likely than women with negative mammograms to report a willingness to participate in future screenings.

Among women with a false-positive mammogram, 50.6% reported anxiety as moderate or higher, and 4.6% said they experienced extreme anxiety. But more women with false-positive results (25.7%), compared with women with negative results (14.2%), said they were "more likely" to undergo another screening within the next two years. Although women would prefer to not receive a false-positive result, it does seem that such a result increases likelihood to undergo future screening.

Although anxiety levels were initially higher among women with false-positive screenings than those with negative results, the difference did not persist 1 year later. In addition, women who reported higher levels of anxiety about potential future false-positive results were more likely than those who did not express anxiety to indicate a willingness to travel and stay overnight to receive a hypothetical new type of mammography that reduces the risk of false-positive results.

“Women need to understand how common the false-positive mammogram experience is,” suggested author Anna Tosteson, ScD, of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, and the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, in an online interview published by JAMA. “We found elevated anxiety to be a time-limited effect of false-positive test results. Our study did make it clear that women would generally prefer tests not associated with false positives, but there were limits on how far they were willing to go to get such a test. The results could be a little reassuring to women.”

The authors suggest the results should be useful to both clinicians who counsel women on screenings and screening guideline development groups. They noted that this is particularly important given the ongoing debate surrounding mammography screening and the upcoming revisions to the US Preventative Services Task Force guidelines.