Systematic review of the psychological consequences of false-positive screening mammograms

Health Technol Assess. 2013 Mar;17(13):1-170, v-vi. doi: 10.3310/hta17130.


Background: In the UK, women aged 50-73 years are invited for screening by mammography every 3 years. In 2009-10, more than 2.24 million women in this age group in England were invited to take part in the programme, of whom 73% attended a screening clinic. Of these, 64,104 women were recalled for assessment. Of those recalled, 81% did not have breast cancer; these women are described as having a false-positive mammogram.

Objective: The aim of this systematic review was to identify the psychological impact on women of false-positive screening mammograms and any evidence for the effectiveness of interventions designed to reduce this impact. We were also looking for evidence of effects in subgroups of women.

Data sources: MEDLINE, MEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE, Health Management Information Consortium, Cochrane Central Register for Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, CRD Health Technology Assessment (HTA), Cochrane Methodology, Web of Science, Science Citation Index, Social Sciences Citation Index, Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Science, Conference Proceeding Citation Index-Social Science and Humanities, PsycINFO, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature, Sociological Abstracts, the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, the British Library's Electronic Table of Contents and others. Initial searches were carried out between 8 October 2010 and 25 January 2011. Update searches were carried out on 26 October 2011 and 23 March 2012.

Review methods: Based on the inclusion criteria, titles and abstracts were screened independently by two reviewers. Retrieved papers were reviewed and selected using the same independent process. Data were extracted by one reviewer and checked by another. Each included study was assessed for risk of bias.

Results: Eleven studies were found from 4423 titles and abstracts. Studies that used disease-specific measures found a negative psychological impact lasting up to 3 years. Distress increased with the level of invasiveness of the assessment procedure. Studies using instruments designed to detect clinical levels of morbidity did not find this effect. Women with false-positive mammograms were less likely to return for the next round of screening [relative risk (RR) 0.97; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.96 to 0.98] than those with normal mammograms, were more likely to have interval cancer [odds ratio (OR) 3.19 (95% CI 2.34 to 4.35)] and were more likely to have cancer detected at the next screening round [OR 2.15 (95% CI 1.55 to 2.98)].

Limitations: This study was limited to UK research and by the robustness of the included studies, which frequently failed to report quality indicators, for example failure to consider the risk of bias or confounding, or failure to report participants' demographic characteristics.

Conclusions: We conclude that the experience of having a false-positive screening mammogram can cause breast cancer-specific psychological distress that may endure for up to 3 years, and reduce the likelihood that women will return for their next round of mammography screening. These results should be treated cautiously owing to inherent weakness of observational designs and weaknesses in reporting. Future research should include a qualitative interview study and observational studies that compare generic and disease-specific measures, collect demographic data and include women from different social and ethnic groups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Early Detection of Cancer / psychology*
  • False Positive Reactions*
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Mammography / psychology*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom