Positive cancer screenings: the needle in the haystack?

By ThinkReliability Staff

Recent research from the journal Current Biology has determined that workers in all industries, including healthcare, are less likely to find rare items.  Says lead author Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School, “If you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it.”   The research may help explain some of the difficulty in finding rare cancers.  Simply put, if a medical professional hasn’t seen very many examples of what cancer looks like in screening tests, it’s more difficult for that professional to find it.

This gives an argument towards greater specialization – based on this research, a medical professional who spends all day looking for breast cancer in mammograms would be more effective at finding it than a general practitioner who may only see a few cases of breast cancer throughout his or her career.

However, another recommended solution is to make sure that the people doing the screening see many examples of what they’re looking for.  Not only could this be done during medical training, but some facilities have found success in “booster exercises”.  Essentially, before a worker spends time screening for rare occurrences, such as indications of cancer, look at results that include a number of positive (i.e. cancerous) screenings.  This helps focus the worker’s attention, leading to quicker and more accurate screening results.