Breast Cancer Awareness Month: revisiting program employing blind women

The Medical Tactile Examiners (MTEs) use self-adhesive stripes with tactile orientation points to identify abnormalities in the breast. Credit: Dr. Frank Hoffmann, Discovering Hands.

By Alina Dain Sharon/

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 2013, I reported on an innovative initiative launched by German gynecologist Dr. Frank Hoffmann. Discovering Hands gives blind women an opportunity for a life-changing career by turning their more acute sense of touch into a skilled breast tumor detection tool. This month, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2015, it felt like a good time to revisit the groundbreaking initiative’s progress.

Hoffmann developed a curriculum for his program, training blind and visually impaired women to become Medical Tactile Examiners (MTEs). He also developed a unique breast examination method to be used by the MTEs. Self-adhesive orientation stripes with tactile orientation points are attached to the patient’s breast in various positions, and the breast is divided into zones that allow the examiners to define the precise square centimeter where an abnormality is found. 

In 2013, Discovering Hands began collaborating with the Ruderman Family Foundation, an organization based in Israel and Boston that prioritizes the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community, with the hope of bringing the initiative to Israel or the U.S. The foundation then granted Discovering Hands an initial $72,000 donation for the cause.

"We've been in constant contact with Discovering Hands over the past few years and correspond frequently with Dr. Hoffmann. Our foundation has supported Discovering Hands in Germany and our support has allowed them to grow and establish themselves there,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told this week.

When I first wrote about Discovering Hands two years ago, the initiative had conducted a study in conjunction with the University of Essen that looked at 451 patients that were examined by MTEs. Among these patients, there were 32 abnormal findings that were discovered by the MTEs, but not by the doctors. In such cases, according to Hoffmann, the women would have likely been sent home undiagnosed by their physicians. Another study showing additional results is expected to be published in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the number of Discovering Hands MTEs in Germany has grown to 23, and the first Discovering Hands Center was opened in Berlin in June 2015. Six MTEs are performing examinations there under one roof on patients sent in by their doctors. A course training an additional four MTEs will conclude at the end of October, and two more courses will begin training more German MTEs in 2016.

Discovering Hands has also finalized a 300-page social franchise handbook that provides instructions for potential franchises to build a Discovering Hands program in different countries. This has been Hoffmann’s long-term goal from the beginning.

“Blindness and cancer are global themes, but the healthcare systems in different given countries are totally different, [and] the vocation training situation for disabled people is different, so you do need to have a national team caring for the national scenery. What we were able to do is to bring together all our knowledge about training candidates to become MTEs,” Hoffmann told this week.

“If you are the franchisee in a given country, you can build up your own Discovering Hands organization,” he said.

Since my report on the program in 2013, discussions took place between Discovering Hands, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and an Israeli hospital over the possibility of launching a similar program in Israel. The hospital requested additional data showing the effectiveness of breast cancer detection by MTEs. Hoffmann and the foundation are waiting for the results of an upcoming new study to be published before proceeding further.

“We have been actively involved to the process of bringing Discovering Hands to Israel and the pending research of their work in Germany will allow us to help them land at the appropriate medical institution in Israel. We believe that Discovering Hands not only provides a unique approach to breast cancer detection, but is an excellent program to increase employment for blind women in the medical workforce,” Jay Ruderman said.

A “next country on the agenda is Israel, absolutely,” Hoffmann told this week, but in the meantime, Discovering Hands is branching out to other realms.

The first experiment of franchising Discovering Hands is currently underway in Austria.

“The first training course is almost finished in Vienna. The first five [Austrian] MTEs will be ready at the end of this year,” Hoffmann said.

The founder of Discovering Hands, Dr. Frank Hoffmann, appears on Austria's version of Shark Tank “2 Minuten 2 Millionen” in 2014. Credit; YouTube screenshot.

In order to build up the Austrian model, in 2014 Hoffmann participated in the Austrian version of the “Shark Tank” entrepreneurial competition show, titled “2 Minuten 2 Millionen” (“2 Minutes 2 Millions”). He secured about 600,000 euros ($676,000) as an investment.

Discovering Hands has also been in contact with the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which is interested in helping to bring the initiative to India. The project has also been contacted by CAF (the Latin American Development Bank), which is now helping finance a Discovering Hands initiative in Colombia.

“For the past two and a half weeks, a training course is going on for Colombian trainers. They will return to [Santiago de] Cali at the end of the month. One of our trainers will join them for the next 12 months in Colombia, and we will set up a project which allows us to bring the Discovering Hands model not only to Colombia, but also to the other member countries of CAF,” Hoffmann said.

It would be a huge benefit to bring this health service “to countries in South America…also in rural and not only in urban regions,” he added.

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Posted on October 8, 2015 .