False-positive mammogram results may push women toward prescription drugs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — False-positive mammogram results push some women to seek immediate stress relief. While awaiting the results of further testing amid fears of potentially having breast cancer, they look for help in new prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications.

This is the finding of a recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, who say their work demonstrates the importance of a fast and final follow-up test to relieve women from the stress of a possible breast cancer diagnosis.

Woman feeling stressed, anxious
A recent study finds that women who receive a false-positive mammogram result are more likely to turn to prescription drugs for anxiety or depression.

“The results suggest that efforts to quickly resolve initially positive findings including same-day follow-up tests may help reduce anxiety and even prevent initiation of anxiety or depression medication,” says lead researcher Joel Segel, an assistant professor of health policy and administration, in a university release.

Researchers gathered Medicaid and commercial insurance records of women ages 40 to 64 who had a mammogram and had not previously been prescribed medications for anxiety or depression. They found a spike in prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications in patients who were told that they might have breast cancer, based on a false-positive mammogram result. False-positives occur when an area on the screen looks suspicious, but after further testing proves to be a false alarm.

During the interim between this initial false-positive mammogram result and the final all-clear outcome, some women are so overcome by the stress, they seek medical help to deal with the ensuing anxiety and depression.

The study determined that women receiving a false-positive mammogram result are 10 to 20 percent more likely to be prescribed medications for anxiety or depression than women who initially receive negative results. These are for new prescriptions, not for refills of medications women were already taking.

Researchers found that of the women who had to have more than one additional test to determine the accuracy of the false-positive result, there was a 20 to 30 percent increase in starting new anxiety or depression medications. This jump happened most often among women with commercial insurance who had to take several tests to determine that they did not have breast cancer.

The authors say this study indicates that women getting false-positive results may need extra follow-up care and support to deal with the higher anxiety. Segel suggests practitioners need to be aware of sub-populations that might be more vulnerable to high anxiety after receiving a false-positive result.

Research shows the greatest risk for clinically significant anxiety or depression is when there is a need for more than one follow-up test, when the insurance company requires a woman to undergo a biopsy, when the results take longer than a week to resolve or when the woman is less than 50 years old.

“Regular breast cancer screening is critical to early detection,” Segel said. “Patients should continue to work with their providers to ensure they are receiving guideline-appropriate screening and should follow up with their providers if they experience either anxiety or depression following screening or any type of care.”

The study’s findings were published in the Aug. 2017 edition of the journal Medical Care.