When Shawna Peters, a cybersecurity recruiter in St. Paul, Minnesota, heard about a VIP night including chair massages and goody bags with mints, lip balms and pedicure accessories, she signed right up. Nevermind that she’d have to get a mammogram to earn those perks.
Mammograms are such a literal pain — unless you are the kind of person who likes having her breast smashed against squeezing plates — that Peters, 44, said she always puts off getting one. “It’s like going to the dentist, having your teeth cleaned,” she said. But with the nearby Fairview clinic in Eagan, Minnesota, dangling extras, Peters ended up enjoying her appointment.
“The chair massage,” she said, “is just super icing on the cake.”
Fairview’s VIP nights are part of a new strategy many medical clinics are undertaking to make mammograms more appealing. Sweetening appointments with beverage bars, warm robes and soothing sound baths puts a relaxed spin on the experience, and is also a way to sell the rest of a hospital’s offerings to women, who tend to be the medical decision makers in their families. Call it the dawning of the age of the “mammoglam.”
When Robert J. Min, the chairman of radiology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, oversaw the opening of a new downtown Manhattan imaging location last year, he insisted that the space be bright and lively. Though it’s underground, he had designers put curtains over softly lit walls to mimic windows, and in the upstairs waiting room, potted orchids were placed on marble-topped tables. Where women wait once they have changed into hospital gowns, there’s dim, adjustable lighting, personal lockers, soothing music and a selection of robes and gowns that patients can use to cover up. (The gowns themselves also come in larger and smaller sizes for different bodies, rather than one unisex size.)
“Typically a lot of breast imaging facilities or OB-GYN facilities, there’s a lot of pastels,” Min said. “‘Water Lilies’ everywhere.” Instead, he went with a bold accent wall plastered with oversize purple flowers.
“I was trying to put color in but, honestly, inject a little bit of life and positivity,” he said. “We’re very conscious about, no one wants to be there — it’s not like going to an Apple Store.”
At Solis Mammography, a chain of about 50 clinics with locations in several states, there is a spalike ambience: wooden flooring, inspirational quotes on the walls, soft music and a color scheme of muted grays, purples and greens. Solis also designed a special cape, which looks like an oversize blouse with front buttons, for women waiting for mammograms to wear.
That’s meant to address the discomfort issue. The other big reason that women don’t get mammograms, according to Solis’ research, is how much time an appointment takes. So it provides night and weekend appointments with online scheduling and online follow-ups, and aims to get women through appointments in about half an hour.
Sydney Young, a lawyer in Paris, Texas, who recently went to a Solis appointment, said that these thoughtful touches “made it feel like the doctor’s office actually was thinking about us.”
Pure Mammography, on Long Island, New York, has another tactic. It tries to nab women where they might already be: at the local mall.
In the Smith Haven Mall in central Long Island, the Pure clinic has warmed-up robes and televisions around the mammogram machines showing mountains and beaches. In the same mall, there’s a pink kiosk where workers flag down women to chat about mammograms. “People like to socialize in a mall, so when they see something they say, ‘What’s this?’,” Felicia Telep, the clinic’s office manager said. “Then they see Pure, and they say, ‘You do mammograms in the mall?’”
“It sounds funny,” Telep added. But when patients can pop into the Cinnabon next door while they wait, who’s complaining?
Across the country, other mammography providers are ginning up other enticements. The University of Connecticut’s Health’s mammogram clinic serves pretzels, graham crackers and juice. Skyline Hospital in Washington state hosted a spa day last fall, also with snacks. Yoakum Community Hospital in Texas has added a chandelier and scent diffuser to its mammography area. Even medical supply companies are getting into it. General Electric, which sells mammography machines, now offers a tricked-out version which spritzes out a “light calming fragrance,” according to GE marketing materials.
There is a public-health argument for making mammograms less intimidating. Though guidelines vary, many hospitals suggest women should get annual mammograms starting at 40. (In 2015, the American Cancer Society said that women should begin getting mammograms later than previously recommended, at around age 45, and less frequently, about every two years, from age 55 on.) However, only about 65% of women over 40 actually had a mammogram in the past two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There’s also a financial argument for clinicians, even though the profitability of mammogram services varies. Min says that reimbursement rates from insurance are often so low that their mammography services lose money. Ellen Hoffman, the director of digital marketing at Solis, said the scale of the clinic’s operations makes the mammogram services profitable.
The biggest gain for clinics, though, tends to be the ripple effect from women who have a good experience with their mammogram, and who make further appointments at a hospital.
“Women are known in their families to drive the decision of where health care is obtained by the family,” said Dr. Alex Merkulov, a radiologist and the head of women’s imaging at UConn Health. “Because we know this, we want women to come to UConn and be impressed with the facility, and then, if they have other non-screening needs, they would refer their friends, their family members, to UConn.”