Health Team

Hospitals turning to computers to assist in detecting breast cancer

Posted October 10, 2008 4:19 p.m. EDT
Updated October 10, 2008 6:53 p.m. EDT

— New research shows a computer can be as good as a second pair of eyes when it comes to screening for breast cancer.

A recent study found computer-aided detection, or CAD, when used by a single radiologist is just as effective as two radiologists examining the same image.

Dr. Paul Tartter, of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York, says CAD is like a spell checker in that the program flags suspicious areas of an X-ray.

"It has extremely complex software than can pick up fine abnormalities on the mammogram, many of which cannot be picked up by the human eye," he said.

CAD is used for about a third of mammograms in the U.S., and doctors expect more hospitals to start using the system as more mammogram centers switch from film to digital images.

The computer-aided detection system is not designed to make a diagnosis but simply highlights areas of concern that a radiologist might not have seen and needs to check further.

The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women, starting at age 40. Experts say there simply are not enough radiologists to give every mammogram two readings.

"It's not really practical to have two radiologists read each mammogram. Computer-aided detection would be the next best thing," radiologist Dr. Lynn Ladetsky said.

But there are some downsides to CAD, Tartter said.

"Because it's so sensitive, many benign lesions are picked up that otherwise would never have been found," he said.

That could mean extra trips to the operating room for biopsies, which is why doctors say the program can't replace an experienced eye.

"It's up to the radiologist to make the final decision," Ladetsky said.