September 30, 1996

Mobile Mammography Van Gets Test To Women Who Need It


At the same time deaths from breast cancer are steadily climbing toward epidemic proportions in the United States, studies show women are not gaining adequate access to mammography, a screening process that can detect breast cancer in its early, curable stages.

This year alone, it is predicted that 44,000 women will die from breast cancer. Of these deaths, 26,000 could have been prevented through early detection and treatment.

Recognizing that patients need more varied and convenient access to mammography, Northwest Imaging of Sacred Heart Medical Center initiated a new mammography service aimed at reaching women who would otherwise have limited access to mammography. This service is mobile mammography, provided by the Northwest Imaging mobile mammography van.

The van, a customized Ford Econoline, transports portable mammography equipment to pre-arranged locations throughout Spokane and the Inland Northwest. At the site of the screening, the mammography equipment is offloaded from the van in five to 10 minutes using a motorized lift. It is then set up in a room where women arrive to be screened. For women taking advantage of this new service, travel to their appointment can involve walking down the hallway of their retirement home, driving several blocks to their neighborhood center or stepping into a room adjacent to their office. Their appointments are timely, efficient and, most of all, convenient.

Denise Davidson, RT, coordinator of mammography services at Northwest Imaging, says there’s no doubt the mobile mammography service is reaching a population of women who in the past found access to mammography difficult.

“Older women,” she observes, “don’t have to worry about getting out and driving themselves to an appointment or depending on someone else for a ride. Younger women also bypass discouraging inconveniences such as time-consuming travel, parking and registration.”

Once patients arrive at the screening, the surroundings are usually more familiar and so are less threatening, giving women a sense of ease and comfort.

The mobile mammography unit is fully accredited by the American College of Radiology. Like all the equipment used in screening for breast cancer at Northwest Imaging, the equipment in the mobile unit is specially designed for mammograms and is used solely for this purpose. It consists of a mammography x-ray machine, about the size of a hot water heater, and a darkroom, about half the size of a conventional refrigerator.

Patients are scheduled for their appointments by those at the site several weeks prior to the screening day. A minimum of 10 patients must be scheduled to make the visit cost-effective, and a maximum of 30 patients can be seen in one day. On average, each appointment, including a medical history interview, takes 15 to 20 minutes. If a patient has had a prior mammogram, her films are sent to Northwest Imaging well ahead of her appointment.

Throughout the day, patients’ films are collected in the portable darkroom, where they are labeled and protected from exposure. At the end of the visit, the film is returned to Northwest Imaging, where it is interpreted by a certified radiologist who compares it with a patient’s prior film, if one is available.

Within days of her visit, a letter outlining the results of mammogram is then sent to the patient’s physician. The physician reviews the results and forwards the letter to the patient. The cost for the mammogram, including the radiologist’s interpretation and reporting, is $60.

When asked where the van will go, Davidson says, “Our motto is we’ll go anywhere we’re needed!

“We haven’t yet set territorial boundaries yet because we just want to provide needed service to our area.”

The van has visited retirement centers, correctional facilities, universities, neighborhood centers and businesses.

Due to its special needs, the rural population is targeted by the program.

“Women in rural areas have very limited access to mammography,” Davidson notes. “Most outlying communities don’t have funding for mammography equipment, so this service isn’t available locally. It takes a lot of motivation to drive into the city to have a mammogram done. Also, there is a psychological factor to consider.

“Because rural women lack ready access to preventative screenings, they don’t usually consider them to be an important part of their health care and tend to wait until symptoms appear before seeking medical care. With the mobile mammography van, we bring mammography to them and circumvent these hurdles.”

Currently, Northwest Imaging’s mobile unit is the only one of its kind in the area; it has been kept busy since making its first site visit in 1991.

Northwest Imaging’s new 40-foot coach will debut in early 1997. The coach will do mammograms and ultrasounds and have the capability to do diagnostic workups on board with the newest technology available.

“Reaction in the community to this new service has been extremely positive,” Davidson concludes. “I think people recognize this is a unique and innovative attempt to confront a disease that is currently striking one in every nine women in our society.

“When a woman tells us she wouldn’t have had a mammogram done if it wasn’t for the mobile van, we’re reminded we’re meeting a very important need in our region.”

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