August 17, 2006—A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released yesterday reaches the conclusion that the nationwide demand for mammography does not exceed current capacity, though access is limited in some areas. The study also notes that, while enforcement of Mammography Quality Standards Act (MQSA) regulations has certainly led to a “level playing field” in terms of quality, yearly inspections are still necessary to maintain this high level of compliance with MQSA standards.

Owing largely to the low reimbursement rate for mammography, more certified mammography centers closed than opened in the years between Oct. 2001 and Oct. 2004, the report notes.  Financial considerations are most frequently cited as the reason for closing, though difficulties recruiting and retaining staff were also factors. But current nationwide capacity can serve up to 80 million women per year, and current statistics show that only 35 million women get mammograms annually.

Access problems can arise, however, in counties such as the 117 whose number of mammography machines decreased 25%, or in the 865 counties with no machines at all. The locations in which access to mammography has been seriously hampered by closures are surprisingly varied: the GAO cites North Dakota, West Virginia, and Brooklyn, New York, where wait time could be anywhere from two to four months.

Though the enforcement of MQSA  standards has let to better quality control, the study concludes that yearly inspections are still necessary; when allowed to go two years without inspection, almost half of facilities failed in the second year.

The study also expresses concern felt by experts in the field “that the numbers of radiologic technologists and radiologists entering the mammography field might not be sufficient to serve the increasing population of women age 40 and older.” Since 2001, the number of radiologic technologists performing mammography has decreased 3%, and the number of radiologists who interpret mammography went down 5%.

—Cat Vasko