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Are breast biopsies reliable?

Cancer is a scary word. When the possibility of the disease is brought up by a physician, most patients are anxious to initiate all necessary tests. The results of these tests, however, may not always be accurate. When a pattern of inaccuracy in medical tests is discovered, it may result in changes to the way in which diagnoses are determined.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the results of breast biopsies may not be as accurate as previously believed. Over 1.5 million breast biopsies are performed on women in the United States every year. Approximately 80 percent of these return results of normal tissue. The reliability of the remaining 20 percent is being called into question by medical researchers. When pathologists were tested for accuracy, they only produced the same result as experts in approximately 75 percent of cases.

The discrepancies in results were greater for some types of diagnoses. Pathologists were accurate approximately 96 percent of the time when studying invasive breast cancer. In cases involving atypical ductal hyperplasia, however, pathologists’ results diverged from those of experts in more than 50 percent of cases. The study found that pathologists who dealt with fewer breast biopsies or worked in small practices were more likely to disagree with the experts’ opinions.  

This variation is significant enough that it may result in alterations in how physicians will deal with potential cases of breast cancer. One recommendation by the study’s authors is that women pursue second opinions more often. This may help to identify any discrepancies and reduce the chances of a misdiagnosis. 

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