Journal article

Improving breast cancer screening in Australia: a public health perspective

Cancer cancer screening Breast cancer


There are currently no single disruptors to breast cancer screening akin to the impact of human papillomavirus testing and vaccination on cervical cancer screening. However, there is a groundswell of interest to review the BreastScreen Australia program to consider more risk-based screening protocols and to establish whether to routinely inform women about their breast density. We propose a framework for a considered, evidence-based review.

Population-level effectiveness of breast cancer screening is ultimately measured through its impact on breast cancer mortality, and this has been realised in Australia. Effectiveness can also be measured through treatment intensity, estimated overdiagnosis, false-positive screens and health economics measures. Key levers to improve such population-level outcomes include screening participation, screening test sensitivity and specificity, risk assessment and screening protocols.

We propose that the review of the program should fall under an evidence-based, consensus-guided framework comprising four complementary elements: improved evidence on current program performance for population risk subgroups; regularly updated evidence on key levers for change; clinical trials and population simulation modelling working in tandem; and consensus-based decision making about the degree of improvement required to justify change.

Informing women about their breast density is feasible and would be valued by some BreastScreen clients to help understand the accuracy of their screening test. However, without agreed protocols for screening women with dense breasts, increases in supplemental screening as observed in other settings would, in Australia, shift screening costs to clients and Medicare. This would reduce equity of access to population screening, and maintaining BreastScreen’s usual standard of monitoring and quality management (such as screen-detected and interval cancer diagnoses, and imaging and biopsy rates) would require data linkage between BreastScreen and other services.

The proposed framework assesses screening effectiveness in the era of personalised medicine, allows review of multiple factors that may together warrant change, and gives full, evidence-based consideration of the benefits, harms and costs of various approaches to breast cancer screening. To be effective, the framework requires a coordinated approach to generating the evidence required for policy makers, with time to prepare appropriate health services.

Key points:

  • In Australia, the relative benefts, harms and costs of risk-based breast cancer screening protocols, or breast density notifcation, are not well understood
  • We propose a framework for evidencebased review of the current national screening program. This includes deriving evidence on program performance for different risk subgroups; evidence about key levers for change; trials and population modelling; and consensusbased decision making
  • The proposed framework requires a coordinated approach, with time to prepare health services for any signifcant changes
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