October 11, 2006

Digital Mammography Coming to County Center . . . But When?

Experts agree that digital mammography offers more accurate results than traditional mammograms. By next summer Suffolk County residents may have access to the new technology at the clinic in the Riverhead County Center. They will, or someone's going to have to answer to North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine.

"This is at the top of the list of things government should be doing. We can save lives," Romaine said. According to the lawmaker, the legislature voted to appropriate money for the machine last year. He credited his predecessor Mike Caracciolo with pushing for the digital technology.

In August, County Executive Steve Levy issued a press release reporting that the state-of-the-art technology was coming to the clinic at the county center, that space within the county center had been located, and that money for needed renovations was allocated. 'When will the machine get here?' is the question Romaine wants answered. He said that since the announcement, no progress has been made, and the machine has yet to be ordered.

That's not exactly so, according to Ron Manning, assistant director of patient care services for the Suffolk County Health Department. He reported that the renovations have begun. As they progress, officials will begin to know how much space is available for the equipment. From there, it can be determined which company's unit will fit best.

Romaine said he wants to see the technology up and running by the first of March. Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino anticipates a timeframe of next June. The veteran official and county executive's top advisor offered a history of the project.

At the end of 2004, the legislature considered a proposal to purchase a second mobile mammography van for the county health department. When officials checked with health department physicians, they determined that a digital unit would be a better investment. Since a new health center in Coram was still in its design phase, lawmakers decided to site the equipment there.

Sabatino said that once a unit was tagged for Coram, Caracciolo demanded another for the East End. Since then, officials have been trying to figure out how to fit the equipment in the existing space at the county center.

The chief deputy noted that philosophical shifts away from the use of the mammography vans in the medical community contributed to the decision to go digital. By the end of 2003, visits to the county's van had dropped from a high of 3713 in 2001 to 2476. It was clear, he said, that one van was meeting the demand . . . but not for long.

The vehicle broke down and was off line for close to 18 months, according to Romaine. He pushed for its return and this month the van is making stops throughout the North Fork. Romaine questions the notion that the van is underused. His office sent cards out to every woman over 40 in the district noting dates, times and locations where the van would be parked. In just one day all the appointments for the first stop were booked. "Clearly there is a need," Romaine said.

On the South Fork, according to Darlene Mercieca, executive director of the South Fork Community Health Initiative, patients have access to mammographies through the initiative's office in East Hampton. They are offered by Southampton Hospital for those who have insurance and through the Women's Health Partnership for those who don't. Still, she agreed the return of the van would be met with appreciation. "The more people you can reach, the better off you are," she said, adding, "You get a lot more people coming out for the van."

The Community Health Initiative was actually the organization that first brought mobile mammograms to the East End, Mercieca informed. Back in the 90s SFCHI procured the van, and the program quickly became an overwhelming success. So successful, in fact, that managing it threatened the organization's ability to run its other programs. SFCHI turned the mobile mammography van program over to the county.

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