Blind women in Cali, Colombia, are lending a hand to help doctors detect breast cancer at early stages. Thanks to the heightened sensitivity in their fingertips, the women are more adept at detecting nodules in breast tissue, the first manifestation of the disease.
"People with visual impairment have an increased sensitivity," said Luis Alberto Olave, a surgeon and coordinator of the Hands Save Lives project at Cali's San Juan de Dios hospital.
“There is a greater sense of touch and greater discrimination of the elements," he said.
German doctor Frank Hoffmann developed this low-cost breast examination method, which taps into the innate abilities of blind people and people living with limited vision. By training blind people to be highly skilled diagnosticians, Hoffmann has helped make them an important part of primary health care infrastructures.
"Women doing self-examinations can feel tumors which are 2cm and larger. Doctors usually find tumors between 1cm and 2cm, whereas blind examiners find lumps between 6mm and 8mm. That makes a real difference. That's the time it takes a tumor to spread its cells into the body,” Hoffmann told the BBC.
The method was first tested out in Germany and Austria, before being brought to South America by German company “Discovery Hands” with support from the Latin American development bank, Corporacion Andina de Fomento.
The breast examiners use braille strips to map any abnormality or lump on a patient’s body.
The patients benefit through longer and more personalized individual examinations. If an abnormality is detected, the doctor proceeds with ultrasounds and mammography.
"Three minutes is all the time I have to do clinical breast examinations in my practice," Hoffmann said. "That's not enough time to find small lumps in the breast tissue, which is crucial to catching breast cancer early."
Trained as Medical Tactile Examiners (MTE) — a profession Hoffmann created — they also assist in maintaining medical records and carrying out the daily tasks of a medical assistant.
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According to the World Health Organization, 2 million people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Approximately 627,000 women died from breast cancer last year. Even though preventive mammography is widely available, it is still an expensive procedure, often only offered to women over the age of 50. Cases of breast cancer in younger women have seen a spike in recent years.
In Colombia, cases are lower than most developed countries — 8,000 detected last year— but experts believe that the mortality rate among these cases is rising because they are detecting cancer too late. But these blind health care workers could be an extremely helpful resource to aid quicker diagnosis.
Statistically, MTE’s can detect up to 30% more nodules than doctors. And the tissue alterations they identify are 50% smaller than those detected by medical professionals.
Leidy Garcia, 27, is one of the three MTE’s in the city of Cali, and has examined more than 2,500 patients. She suffered from cerebral thrombosis in 2011, and can no longer see through her left eye though she can detect blurred shapes through her right eye and for her the job has been life-changing.
“For people with disabilities, it’s so hard to find a job because of bias and boundaries inside companies, so this is a great opportunity based in our talent. It’s also a good way to change the mindset of society, which usually patronizes blind people, thinking we are not able to do many things,” she told the Guardian.
“This job gives me huge self-confidence. Now I feel free, independent and useful. I can contribute to the community,” she added.