Patients’ behaviors key consideration in mammography, screening guidelines

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Policy-makers who establish health screening guidelines, such as mammograms for breast cancer, need to consider that it takes time for people to change their health behaviors, says a Purdue University health communication expert.

“People are not light switches,” says Jakob D. Jensen, an assistant professor of communication. “It takes people a while to develop the habit to be screened annually, so we should be seeking opportunities to improve screening participation and techniques at younger ages rather than delaying it.”

Jensen, who is studying how to increase mammography utilization, is referring to the recent U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report, which recommended the current mammogram screening guidelines should be pushed from age 40 to 50 for the average woman. The task force also recommended that screenings be conducted every other year.

“In general, the report has a lot of uncertainty in regards to screenings as they relate to false positives and effectiveness, but it also neglects the challenges of behavior changes,” says Jensen, whose work is funded by the American Caner Society, which disagrees with the report.

“There is something known as cancer fatalism, and it is the belief that nothing can be done to prevent cancer so people choose not to act. Unfortunately, some people may feel this new information feeds that message. For those of us trying to encourage women to be proactive and incorporate screenings into their lives, our jobs just got a lot harder.”

Jensen is studying how tailored, personalized messages to individuals can improve participation in mammograms and colon cancer screenings.

“Tailoring health information to specific individuals makes that message more relevant to a person’s lifestyle, and, as a result, they are more likely to change for the long term,” he says. “In lieu of this report, there is even more of a need to make sure health-care providers, educators and communicators are thinking about the individual and what information that person needs to help them engage in a healthy lifestyle.”

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