The changes in mammography guidelines by the US Preventative Systems Task Force (USPSTF) announced in late November were not surprisingly met with great confusion, frustration and anger by women and the health advocates who serve them. The casual observer can be forgiven for seeing this incident as just another botched communications job by an obscure government panel.
However, many of us involved in healthcare realize this could mark the beginning of a critical chapter in public health advocacy.
This incident strikes at the core of the myriad healthcare issues that are being discussed and debated throughout America and speaks to the complexity of how these issues are being considered by the public.
Although changes to such well-established guidelines such as these resulted in dismay, it is inevitable that such guidelines will now be revisited more often.
To this end, they will be done so not just to assess standard of care but also to address financial burden to the system. Medical guidelines that were originally devised to rely on science rigor can now also be influenced by politics and economic dictates.
Hopefully, public health advocates will hear the USPSTF announcement as a clarion call. It is time to take seriously the advocate's role in helping to ensure that medical needs are not being compromised in the short-term interest of simply saving the system money.
The USPTF made its decision entirely based on an analysis of data regarding the number of potential lives saved, without consideration for the expertise and knowledge the advocacy community has acquired over the past 30 years of working in this space.
Indeed, the American Cancer Society and other advocacy organizations stepped up in response to the USPSTF change in guidelines and the public saw a swift and immediate shift in position.
The ability of advocacy to understand the dynamics of the patient community and to motivate behavioral change to the best interests of that community should be embraced and employed to the advantage of all. Health advocates will be needed to assume this role—now more than ever.
Jean Ann Morgan is managing director, Burson-Marsteller's Healthcare Practice