OBJECTIVES: To estimate women's expectations of the accuracy of screening mammography and to explore attitudes towards compensation for missed cancers. DESIGN: Cross sectional survey (by telephone). SETTING: Australia; population-based survey conducted in April 1996. PARTICIPANTS: Random sample of women aged 30-69 years. A total of 2935 women completed the Breast Health Survey (adjusted response rate 65%). A random sample of 115 completed this sub-survey on perceived sensitivity of mammographic screening and compensation for missed cancers. RESULTS: About one third of women (32.2%, 95% CI 23.7, 40.7) had an unrealistically high expectation of the sensitivity of screening mammography, reporting it to be 95% or higher. Approximately 40% of the women (43.5%, 95% CI 34.4, 52.6) thought that screening mammography should pick up all cancers (should have a sensitivity of 100%). Just under half the women (45.2%, 95% CI 36.1, 54.3) said financial compensation should be awarded for a cancer missed by screening mammography even if the cancer was missed as a consequence of the small failure rate of the test. Younger women living in metropolitan areas and women who had realistic expectations of the accuracy of the tests were more likely to favour financial compensation. CONCLUSION: Unrealistically high expectations of the sensitivity of screening mammography were common in this group of women. Many women favoured financial compensation for missed cancers even if the cancer was missed solely because of the failure rate of the test. Public education is required to inform women of the limited sensitivity of breast cancer tests but this may not reduce claims for financial compensation when cancers are missed.
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