Evaluation of information on screening, the situation in Italy, French parallel, and hope…

Synthesis Dr. C.Bour, May 11, 2022


According to the authors of this Italian study published in BioMed Central (BMC, a scientific journal) on April 22, 2022, information about overdiagnosis showed a notable increase in 2021 compared with 2014. However, the frequency of this information in the documents aimed at women was still low, probably because it is both the most recent and harmful risk for women. Therefore, not all health operators are aware of overdiagnosis. If they are aware of it, they might avoid reporting the information in public documents for fear of dissuading women from undergoing screening. Moreover, many reports of overdiagnosis are unclear.

It is difficult not to find a parallel with the situation regarding information in France.

This situation of insufficient information for women persists for many reasons.

One of the most frequently reported justifications is that providing information on potential harms could reduce adherence to screening.

Method and results

As information provided to women on the benefit-risk balance is still highly biased, F. Atténa (Department of Experimental Medicine, University of Campania "Luigi Vanvitelli") and her collaborators have decided to evaluate documents addressed to the general female public and published on the Internet by the Italian national and regional public health services.

Information on false positives and false negatives, biopsy-proven false positives, interval cancer, overdiagnosis, radiation exposure, and mortality risk reduction was analyzed. In addition, quantitative data were investigated.

The 2021 situation was compared with the 2014 situation.

Overdiagnosis and biopsy-proven false-positive results were the least reported risks of screening (20.1% and 10.4%).
Compared to the 2014 information, the 2021 information showed some improvements. The most marked improvements concern overdiagnosis. The declarations of this adverse effect increased from 8.0 to 20.1%.
Concerning the number of false positives proven by biopsy, there is also an increase in the information from 1.4 to 10.4%.
But quantitative data remained scarce in 2021.

The authors conclude with the evidence of moderate improvements in information observed from 2014 to 2021.

However, information about breast cancer screening in materials for women published on Italian websites remains too sparse.

A previous shocking Italian study from 2020

A study published in September 2020 by Italian authors moved us: this economic study explained how to effectively manipulate women to make them participate ever more in organized breast cancer screening by mammography. The authors then congratulated themselves with confusing cynicism on the effectiveness of manipulation techniques: by withholding information from women in the invitation letters, insisting on a negative effect and a potential danger of not participating in screening, by "limiting the cognitive overload of women" (sic), it would be possible to increase participation in screening significantly.

This kind of unethical study can explain, among other things, the persistence of misinformation of women and biases in the information, which are constantly renewed, as seen in this BMC study mentioned above.

A problem common to many countries, including France

Danish authors analyzed how health authorities can subtly influence citizens to participate in cancer screening programs: https://cancer-rose.fr/en/2021/04/20/methods-of-influencing-the-public-to-attend-screenings/

The researchers identified and analyzed several "categories of influence," i.e., several methods that can be used to push the public to undergo screening.

In a systematic table, we find that information bias is used in many countries, among which we find European countries like Italy, corroborating the finding of this BMC study, Spain, and also France, where biased information from the National Cancer Institute (INCa) is present in two of the systematic categories. See the table: https://cancer-rose.fr/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Supplementary-Tables-Rahbak-et-al-210421.pdf

The INCa's disregard for information to women culminates with the qualification of the scientific controversy of screening as "fake news ." (Cf https://cancer-rose.fr/en/2021/06/24/press-release-cancer-rose/)

Hope for improvement and consideration of overdiagnosis

A position of French sociologists on the "health projects" of the next government can be read in the article "The main topics for the next Minister of Health" published in the media 20Minutes; they are alarmed by the overdiagnosis of organized screening (in the section "Prevention").

We can read:

 "We must be wary of organized screenings; it can generate overdiagnosis, criticizes Frédéric Pierru (doctor in political science, a sociologist at the CNRS, research fellow (CR-CNRS), works at the Center for Political and Social Administrative Studies and Research (CERAPS), attached to the University of Lille). This is an individualistic, medicalized, and poor vision of prevention". He believes that it would be more effective to put resources back into maternal and child protection centers (PMI), school medicine, occupational medicine...

"Effective prevention would mean addressing diet, stress, alcohol..." says Daniel Benamouzig (sociologist, Director of Research at the CNRS, holder of the Health Chair at Sciences Po, and researcher at the Centre Sociologie des Organisations (CNRS and Sciences Po)). We know that this President is not very inclined to oppose the alcohol or pesticide lobbies. Health, particularly public health and the ecological transition, is a long-term task. It is not easy to prove oneself in five years..."

Let's hope that these far-sighted scientists are heard...

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