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Use of Thermal Imaging for Early Breast Cancer Detection – NHMRC Position Statement

In 2012, The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published a position statement and supplementary ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ regarding the use of thermography for the early detection of breast cancer. The NHMRC’s position is that there is no evidence of sufficient quality to demonstrate that thermography is effective for early detection or screening for breast cancer.

Synopsis

Thermography, or thermal imaging, is based on the theory that skin over a malignant breast lesion is warmer than the surrounding tissue.  This technique uses infrared cameras to take ‘heat pictures’ to detect cancerous tissue. Thermography is sometimes marketed as an alternative to screening mammography and to women aged less than 40 years, women with small breasts, and women with breast implants. However, few studies investigating thermography for breast cancer screening or diagnosis have been conducted.  Furthermore, there is no evidence of sufficient quality to demonstrate thermography is effective in breast cancer screening or as an adjunct to mammography, histology or other clinical tests for breast cancer diagnosis.

Although imperfect, screening mammography remains the most effective screening test for reducing mortality from breast cancer and is supported by a large body of high quality evidence. Screening mammography is for women who do not have any symptoms of breast cancer. Women of any age, who notice a change in the look or feel of their breast, should report to their general practitioner without delay for assessment of the symptoms. The triple test approach to investigation of symptoms ensures the highest accuracy for detection of breast cancer; this includes clinical examination, imaging tests such as a mammogram and ultrasound, and biopsy. For more advice on breast awareness and early detection of breast cancer visit the Cancer Australia website: www.canceraustralia.gov.au.

Process

NHMRC’s Health Care Committee (HCC) oversaw the development of the position statement and supplementary Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to inform the Australian public and non-specialist health care providers of the current evidence relating to thermography.  The Statement and FAQs utilised evidence from a range of sources, including the Australian and New Zealand Horizon Scanning Network (ANZHSN) review of new and emerging technologies for breast cancer detection in 2009, which concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of thermography for the diagnosis of breast cancer in asymptomatic women.

The National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 provides that a function of the NHMRC is to inquire into and advise the community on matters relating to the improvement of health, and the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease (section 7(1)(a)).

The purpose of this statement is to advise the Australian public of NHMRC’s view on the available evidence concerning the use of thermography as an early detection test for breast cancer, and to provide information about the detection of early breast cancer for women without symptoms. This may assist the Australian community to make informed decisions about their health care.

Publication

Public Consultation

Public consultation on the draft Statement and supplementary FAQs was undertaken from 14 December 2011 until 25 January 2012.  The public consultation was advertised in the Weekend Australian. A number of key stakeholders: Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Therapeutic Goods Administration, National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre, other Cancer organisations, consumer groups and professional colleges, were also notified.

Ten submissions were received from a variety of stakeholders including individuals, government agencies, health organisations and health professionals. Full submissions are available here. All submissions received during the consultation were taken into consideration.

Following consideration of the submissions by an internal review committee, the documents were revised. A number of key issues were identified and addressed, including:

  • Use of Thermography as a screening tool to be included in document;
  • The approach to considering and describing the quality of the evidence;
  • Language, formatting and structure revised to enhance readability;
  • Additional references have been included; and
  • Additional websites for further information added.

The final documents were approved by NHMRC’s Health Care Committee and then by Council, with final approval to release provided by NHMRC Chief Executive Officer, Professor Warwick Anderson, in December 2012.

Page reviewed: 12 November, 2013