Background: The cumulative risk of a false positive result from a breast-cancer screening test is unknown.
Methods: We performed a 10-year retrospective cohort study of breast-cancer screening and diagnostic evaluations among 2400 women who were 40 to 69 years old at study entry. Mammograms or clinical breast examinations that were interpreted as indeterminate, aroused a suspicion of cancer, or prompted recommendations for additional workup in women in whom breast cancer was not diagnosed within the next year were considered to be false positive tests.
Results: A total of 9762 screening mammograms and 10,905 screening clinical breast examinations were performed, for a median of 4 mammograms and 5 clinical breast examinations per woman over the 10-year period. Of the women who were screened, 23.8 percent had at least one false positive mammogram, 13.4 percent had at least one false positive breast examination, and 31.7 percent had at least one false positive result for either test. The estimated cumulative risk of a false positive result was 49.1 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 40.3 to 64.1 percent) after 10 mammograms and 22.3 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 19.2 to 27.5 percent) after 10 clinical breast examinations. The false positive tests led to 870 outpatient appointments, 539 diagnostic mammograms, 186 ultrasound examinations, 188 biopsies, and 1 hospitalization. We estimate that among women who do not have breast cancer, 18.6 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 9.8 to 41.2 percent) will undergo a biopsy after 10 mammograms, and 6.2 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 3.7 to 11.2 percent) after 10 clinical breast examinations. For every 100 dollars spent for screening, an additional 33 dollars was spent to evaluate the false positive results.
Conclusions: Over 10 years, one third of women screened had an abnormal test result that required additional evaluation, even though no breast cancer was present. Techniques are needed to decrease false positive results while maintaining high sensitivity. Physicians should educate women about the risk of a false positive result from a screening test for breast cancer.