Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Guest Editor | No mammograms in public sector, doctors concerned

Published:Monday | October 2, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Dr Natalie Whylie, senior medical officer at the Kingston Public Hospital.
Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton
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At least two senior medical practitioners have lamented the absence of a national screening programme that could bolster the fight against breast and other cancers.

Among those who have expressed concerns is senior medical officer at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) Dr Natalie Whylie. The hospital has seen several cancer patients coming to seek varying treatments to battle the disease.

"The absence of a national screening programme is worrisome," Whylie told The Gleaner.

Similar sentiments were echoed by general and laparoscopic surgeon Dr Michael McFarlane who has, over the years, performed the difficult task of helping breast cancer patients remove their breasts.

"At the moment, I would say that we don't have a national breast cancer-screening programme," said the doctor who has been practising for more than 25 years. "The Jamaica Cancer Society is the only facility that offers organised screening," he added.

"A national screening programme would start to screen women usually, at age 40, when her first mammogram would be done, and after that, screening would be done annually or bi-annually," he said.

Mammograms are currently not offered in the public-health sector. Although the KPH used to offer this service, the machine to perform the examination has been out of operation for some time now.

Women can expect to pay as much as $21,000 to get a mammogram in the private sector. The Jamaica Cancer Society, which conducts an estimated 10,000 mammograms annually, offers the cheapest rate at $3,800.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton admits that there has been no mammogram service for several years now in the public sector, but he says that efforts were being made to change this reality.

"The NHF (National Health Fund) is in the process of procuring a mobile unit for the Ministry of Health to provide diagnostic and screening mammograms," he said.

He noted that the plan was to make the service available at the four major public hospitals, starting with the KPH and the Cornwall Regional Hospital. The NHF and the chief medical officer would be leading this charge.

Tufton said that he was not opposed to having a national screening programme implemented as the ministry was working to improve its programmes.

National Health Insurance Scheme to allow for access to mammograms needed

Head of the mammography unit at the University Hospital of the West Indies and radiologist Dr Derria Cornwall believes that cost is a deterrent for some in seeking mammograms and other cancer treatments.

"The cost being a deterrent depends on your social circumstances and your economic circumstances because $1,000 could be a deterrent for somebody," she explained.

"Something could be in place like a national health insurance scheme or something that would allow people to be able access it (mammograms), even if they don't have a job," she suggested.

Cornwall's suggestion was supported by the country's chief medical officer, Dr Winston De La Haye, who does not believe it would not be feasible to offer mammograms for free.

"A national health insurance service will be the way to go so that those who can pay, pay, and those who can't, can be assisted," he said.

Cancer survivor Janette Kaloo, who has a foundation for cancer patients, has found that some women simply do not do their mammograms because of a lack of funds.

"It's either they can pay the money for the mammogram, but they don't have the fare to get where they have to get the mammograms done," she said.

"For example, I live in Treasure Beach. I would have to go to Mandeville, which is the nearest town. By the time you pay to go to Mandeville, it's like half the amount of what you are going to pay for the mammogram," she explained.

She has found, too, that some women are still fearful of getting this examination done and would, therefore, like to see more public-education campaigns encouraging women over 40 to do their annual mammograms.

"They worry about that 30-second pain, but to be honest with you, it is going to be worse than the 30-second pain. I would rather have that 30-second pain than actually have to go through the whole journey of knowing that I have some form of cancer and did not catch it early," Kaloo said.