′Developing Hands′ project uses blind to detect breast cancer | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 17.04.2012
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'Developing Hands' project uses blind to detect breast cancer

The blind possess an especially keen sense of touch. Now, this has been put to special use in feeling out breast cancer for high-risk women - and possibly for those in developing countries, as well.

Every year in Germany, 74,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 17,000 succumb to it. Despite screening methods such as mammography and ultrasound, the illness is often discovered too late.

That's why women are also advised to examine their breasts themselves once a month. Twice a year, doctors are supposed to carry this out, and a patient can also entrust the examination to a professionally trained specialist.

Awareness of the enhanced sense of touch available to the blind led Duisburg gynecologist Dr. Frank Hoffmann to the idea of enlisting them to become "medical touch examiners." Out of this, Hoffmann founded the "Discovering Hands" initiative in 2006.

Practiced on each other

Medical touch examiner Marie-Luise Voll became blind at the age of 52 from glaucoma. Since 2008, she's been working at Hoffmann's gynecological practice.

Voll trained for nine months in preparation for the practice, studying the anatomy of the female breast, along with cancer diagnostics and therapy.

"The touching part itself, we learned with practice pads," Voll told DW. They also taped orientation strips to each other and to their teachers, using these to divide the breasts into four zones.

That makes it easier for the examiners to perceive the full extent of any changes, and notify the doctor of the exact location of any masses.

As good as doctors

Breast cancer carcinoma on a monitor

The medical touch specialists should not replace conventional screening methods

The medical touch examiners have proved to be very effective: among 450 women examined, 56 showed irregularities in their breasts.

Hoffmann is also convinced of their effectiveness. "Fact is, the blind examiners can feel out changes at least as well as trained doctors," Hoffman said. They've even felt out a number of things that the doctors overlooked, Hoffmann added.

These examiners are intended to complement, and not replace, procedures such as mammography or ultrasound.

For a cost of around 50 euros - which is fully covered by some health insurance carriers - the service is one of several extras offered when women visit the gynecologist's.

It's a bonus that some younger women seek out, since in Germany semi-annual mammography is only covered by insurance once a woman reaches the age of 50.

And through spending half an hour to one hour on the examination, the blind examiners can make sure they take care not only of the women's exam, but also their fears.

"I try to create a soothing atmosphere, to help calm the women," Voll explained, especially for those with a higher risk of actually contracting cancer due to their family history.

Potential for developing countries

Female patient receiving breast scan

Blind examiners can also offer personalized service

Since its founding in 2006, Discovering Hands has had a positive impact. Blind examiners are currently being trained in various locations across Germany.

They are now also being promoted by Ashoka, an organization that supports socially responsible entrepreneurs.

As one such business, Hoffmann received a "scholarship" from Ashoka, which has reduced his workload at the gynecological practice and allowed him to focus on developing Discovering Hands.

Hoffman is convinced that the use of blind people as medical touch examiners is a good option for developing countries, where technical gear and infrastructure is lacking.

And of course, the work also gives blind women new career prospects.

Author: Gudrun Heise / sad
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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