discovering hands - early breast cancer detection through blind and visually impaired women
Breast cancer – the burden and early diagnosis
In Germany, breast cancer is the most common cause of death for women between 40 and 44 years of age. Roughly 60,000 women are newly diagnosed with breast cancer every year; for 18,000 of these cases the illness is fatal. Early detection and treatment significantly increases women’s chance of survival, and quality of life for those on treatment.
The available prevention and early detection methods for breast cancer in Germany are not optimal. The standard method used today is mammogram screening. However, routine mammograms in the German healthcare system are only offered to women aged between 50 and 69, even though around 20% of breast cancer is detected in women under the age of 50. In addition (and for younger women this is the only method of screening), physicians regularly examine the breast as part of a routine female check-up (usually once or twice a year). However, there is no standardized or evaluated method for such breast examinations in Germany and it’s provided at varying levels of time investment and care.
Discovering hands® - idea and benefits
Discovering hands® addresses some of these shortcomings by training and deploying visually impaired women with their highly developed sensory skills to detect the early signs of breast cancer.
“Clinical Breast Examiners” (CBEs) are trained at vocational training centers for people with disabilities (Berufsförderungswerke) across Germany and deliver breast examinations at doctors’ practices. During the 9-month training period, they learn how to use a standardized diagnostic method for examining the female breast. Additionally, all CBEs are trained in communication skills and breast-specific psychology, as well as administrative tasks typically carried out by a doctor’s assistant.
CBEs are either directly employed by resident doctors or hospitals, or they work for different practices and/or hospitals on a freelance basis.
The examination is either paid by health insurances (so far we have contracts with 4 health insurances in Germany) or out of the patient’s own pocket.
Discovering hands® has a number of benefits:
Perceived disability becomes a talent: By using the extraordinary sensory capabilities of visually impaired women, a perceived “disability” is transformed into a capability. A completely new field of meaningful employment is created
Standardized method: CBEs use a standardized examination method that has been developed specifically for the purpose of their work
More time for prevention and early detection: Typically, a regular breast examination carried out by a gynecologist takes between 1 and 3 minutes. The CBE invests at least 30 minutes for each session, not only examining the breast, but also educating patients on how to cope with the risk of breast cancer. Patients feel that they are well taken care of and receive the best possible preventive examination in a pleasant environment
Although a peer-reviewed clinical study has not yet been completed , preliminary qualitative results show that CBEs detect ~50% more and ~30% smaller tissue alterations in the breast than doctors (5-8mm vs. 10-15mm).
As of today, ~20 blind women are part of the discovering hands® network, working in 17 gynecologist’s practices and hospitals across Germany. More than 8,000 examinations have been carried out to date.
Discovering hands® is planning to substantially increase the number of CBEs in the years to come, aiming at employing roughly 60 blind women in Germany alone.
So far, there is no expansion or adoption of the discovering hands® approach (or any similar use of blind women in early breast cancer detection) beyond Germany. However, discovering hands® intends to expand the system to at least 3-4 countries in the next 5 years.
Discovering hands® is a social enterprise. All benefits are reinvested in improving our services and scaling up the reach of CBEs across Germany and beyond.
Success thus far
The idea and current status of discovering hands® has received a lot of positive feedback and support. We have won numerous prizes, among them the prize for innovation in the German healthcare system in 2011. Furthermore, Dr.
Frank Hoffmann – the CEO and founder of discovering hands®– is an awarded Ashoka-Fellow.