Putting the glam in mammogram

A patient going through breast screening on a mammogram machine.
A patient going through breast screening on a mammogram machine.PHOTO: ST FILE

BOSTON • When Ms Shawna Peters, a cyber security recruiter in Minnesota, heard about a VIP night including massages and goody bags with mints, lip balms and pedicure accessories, she signed up.

It did not matter that she would have to get a mammogram to earn those perks.

Mammograms are such a literal pain - unless you are the kind of person who likes having her breast smashed against squeezing plates - that Ms Peters, 44, said she always puts off getting one.

But with the Fairview clinic dangling extras, she ended up enjoying her appointment.

Fairview's VIP nights are part of a new strategy many medical clinics are undertaking to make mammograms more appealing. Sweetening appointments with beverage bars, warm robes and soothing sounds puts a relaxed spin on the experience and is also a way to sell the rest of a hospital's offerings to women.

Call it the dawning of the age of the "mammoglam".

When Dr Robert Min, chairman of radiology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, oversaw the opening of a new Manhattan imaging location last year, he insisted that the space be bright and lively.

Though it is underground, he had designers put curtains over softly lit walls to mimic windows and, in the waiting room, potted orchids were placed on marble-topped tables.

Where women wait once they have changed into hospital gowns, there is dim, adjustable lighting, personal lockers and soothing music.

At Solis Mammography, a chain of about 50 clinics, there is a spa-like ambience: wooden flooring, inspirational quotes on walls and a colour scheme of muted greys and greens.

The other big reason that women do not get mammograms, according to Solis' research, is how much time an appointment takes.

Hence, it provides night and weekend appointments with online scheduling and follow-ups, and aims to get women through appointments in about half an hour.

Ms Sydney Young, a lawyer who recently went to a Solis appointment, said these thoughtful touches "made it feel like the doctor's office actually was thinking about us".

Pure Mammography, on Long Island, New York, tries to nab women where they might already be: at the mall. In the Smith Haven Mall, the Pure clinic has warmed-up robes and televisions around the mammogram machines showing mountains and beaches.

In the mall, there is a pink kiosk where workers flag down women to chat about mammograms. "People like to socialise in a mall, so when they see something, they say, 'What's this?'," Ms Felicia Telep, the clinic's office manager, said. "Then they see Pure, and they say, 'You do mammograms in the mall?'"

Across the country, other mammography providers are ginning up other enticements.

The University of Connecticut's Health's mammogram clinic serves pretzels, graham crackers and juice.

Skyline Hospital in Washington state hosted a spa day last autumn, also with snacks.

Even medical supply companies are getting into it. General Electric, which sells mammography machines, now offers a tricked-out version which spritzes out a "light calming fragrance".

Though guidelines vary, many hospitals suggest women should get annual mammograms starting at 40.

In 2015, the American Cancer Society said women should begin getting mammograms later than previously recommended, at around age 45 and, less frequently, about every two years, from age 55 onwards.

However, only about 65 per cent of women over 40 had a mammogram in the past two years, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is also a financial argument for clinicians, even though the profitability of mammogram services varies. Dr Min said reimbursement rates from insurance are often so low that their mammography services lose money.

Ms Ellen Hoffman, director of digital marketing at Solis, said the scale of the clinic's operations makes the mammogram services profitable.

The biggest gain for clinics, though, tends to be the ripple effect from women who have a good experience with their mammogram, and who make further appointments at a hospital.

"Women are known in their families to drive the decision of where health care is obtained by the family," said Dr Alex Merkulov, head of women's imaging at UConn Health.

"Because we know this, we want women to come to UConn and be impressed with the facility, and then, if they have other non-screening needs, they would refer their friends, their family members, to UConn."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline 'Putting the glam in mammogram'. Print Edition | Subscribe