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Open Access Research article

Income level and regional policies, underlying factors associated with unwarranted variations in conservative breast cancer surgery in Spain

Manuel Ridao-López12, Sandra García-Armesto1, Begoña Abadía-Taira1, Salvador Peiró-Moreno2 and Enrique Bernal-Delgado1*

Author Affiliations

1 Instituto Aragonés de Ciencias de la Salud. Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Aragón. Zaragoza, Spain

2 Centro Superior de Investigación en Salud Pública.(CSISP) Valencia, Spain

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:145  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-145

Published: 19 April 2011



Geographical variations in medical practice are expected to be small when the evidence about the effectiveness and safety of a particular technology is abundant. This would be the case of the prescription of conservative surgery in breast cancer patients. In these cases, when variation is larger than expected by need, socioeconomic factors have been argued as an explanation. Objectives: Using an ecologic design, our study aims at describing the variability in the use of surgical conservative versus non-conservative treatment. Additionally, it seeks to establish whether the socioeconomic status of the healthcare area influences the use of one or the other technique.


81,868 mastectomies performed between 2002 and 2006 in 180 healthcare areas were studied. Standardized utilization rates of breast cancer conservative (CS) and non-conservative (NCS) procedures were estimated as well as the variation among areas, using small area statistics. Concentration curves and dominance tests were estimated to determine the impact of income and instruction levels in the healthcare area on surgery rates. Multilevel analyses were performed to determine the influence of regional policies.


Variation in the use of CS was massive (4-fold factor between the highest and the lowest rate) and larger than in the case of NCS (2-fold), whichever the age group. Healthcare areas with higher economic and instruction levels showed highest rates of CS, regardless of the age group, while areas with lower economic and educational levels yielded higher rates of NCS interventions. Living in a particular Autonomous Community (AC), explained a substantial part of the CS residual variance (up to a 60.5% in women 50 to 70).


The place where a woman lives -income level and regional policies- explain the unexpectedly high variation found in utilization rates of conservative breast cancer surgery.