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Twitter Talk About Inappropriate Breast Imagery in a Medical Journal

March 3, 2009

This morning, I found myself in a discussion on Twitter with others interested in medical topics as a result of an “Analysis” commentary in the journal BMJ – “Breast screening: the facts—or maybe not.” In the piece, the authors critique a UK leaflet on breast screening, and propose an alternate version, discussing unnecessary treatment, false positives, radiation exposure and other considerations for making decisions about mammography.

The article itself isn’t what generated discussion, however – it was the image chosen for the PDF version. This version, which is how the article appeared in the printed journal, doesn’t reproduce the informational leaflets in question for illustrations, but rather uses a photo of a topless young woman receiving a mammogram.

Dr. Annabel Bentley (of Patient Eye at OnMedica and tweeting as @doctorblogs) first drew our attention to this issue. She noted that the photo is “irrelevant/inaccurate” because it features a young (late 20s? 30ish?) woman rather than a photo of an older woman for whom breast cancer screening is recommended. Bentley explains:

BMJ breast screening pic wrong because: woman in 30s (screening is 50-70+); sitting (most standing); exposed breasts (let women cover up!)

The last is a point I had trouble with as well – there may be cultural or individual modesty concerns w/ screening – a woman may want to cover opposite breast, and this photo doesn’t exactly encourage providers to consider that aspect. Others found the photo to be a bit gratuitous. Dr. Bentley, however, thought the photo editor may have simply selected the first relevant image from a photo library – the selected photo is actually the first result in a search for mammography here.

Indeed, this photo library features top results full of unnecessarily exposed photos of young, thin, white, conventionally pretty women – hardly representative of the range or majority of women who actually do or should receive mammograms. Bentley rightly points out that more realistic, representative (at least it’s an older woman), and modest, photos were certainly available for selection in the very same photo library. The photo used had to be deliberately selected, and it would be nice if the photo chosen to illustrate an important health topic was chosen for relevancy rather than for titillation (pun completely intended).

Thanks to @doctorblogs for generating an interesting and international discussion which likely wouldn’t have occurred but for Twitter!

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 4, 2009 3:13 am


    Thanks for your neat summary of yesterday’s instant global health debate on Twitter. I agree with you, the conversation just couldn’t have happened without Twitter.

    Perhaps we can use this an example of the *benefits* of communicating through social networks. In UK news there been lots of recent articles about the supposed *harms* of social networks! (if you want the detail see Elin’s blog here – )

    bw Annabel

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