Variation in Mammographic Breast Density Assessments Among Radiologists in Clinical Practice: A Multicenter Observational Study

Brian L Sprague, Emily F Conant, Tracy Onega, Michael P Garcia, Elisabeth F Beaber, Sally D Herschorn, Constance D Lehman, Anna N A Tosteson, Ronilda Lacson, Mitchell D Schnall, Despina Kontos, Jennifer S Haas, Donald L Weaver, William E Barlow
Annals of Internal Medicine 2016 October 4, 165 (7): 457-464

Background: About half of the United States has legislation requiring radiology facilities to disclose mammographic breast density information to women, often with language recommending discussion of supplemental screening options for women with dense breasts.

Objective: To examine variation in breast density assessment across radiologists in clinical practice.

Design: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of prospectively collected observational data.

Setting: 30 radiology facilities within the 3 breast cancer screening research centers of the Population-based Research Optimizing Screening through Personalized Regimens (PROSPR) consortium.

Participants: Radiologists who interpreted at least 500 screening mammograms during 2011 to 2013 (n = 83). Data on 216 783 screening mammograms from 145 123 women aged 40 to 89 years were included.

Measurements: Mammographic breast density, as clinically recorded using the 4 Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System categories (heterogeneously dense and extremely dense categories were considered "dense" for analyses), and patient age, race, and body mass index (BMI).

Results: Overall, 36.9% of mammograms were rated as showing dense breasts. Across radiologists, this percentage ranged from 6.3% to 84.5% (median, 38.7% [interquartile range, 28.9% to 50.9%]), with multivariable adjustment for patient characteristics having little effect (interquartile range, 29.9% to 50.8%). Examination of patient subgroups revealed that variation in density assessment across radiologists was pervasive in all but the most extreme patient age and BMI combinations. Among women with consecutive mammograms interpreted by different radiologists, 17.2% (5909 of 34 271) had discordant assessments of dense versus nondense status.

Limitation: Quantitative measures of mammographic breast density were not available for comparison.

Conclusion: There is wide variation in density assessment across radiologists that should be carefully considered by providers and policymakers when considering supplemental screening strategies. The likelihood of a woman being told she has dense breasts varies substantially according to which radiologist interprets her mammogram.

Primary Funding Source: National Institutes of Health.

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