Dangers of Medical Imaging Often Overlooked

As medical imaging technology has advanced, the physicians, technologists, and even patients who rely on them are overlooking the dangers of radiation exposure they pose.

According to a New York Times report this week, image tests such as CT scans account for 1.5 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S. each year. CT scans can deliver a much clearer image for doctors who order them on patients and will provide a physician with a more accurate diagnosis of a patient’s condition, possibly finding problems that wouldn’t have been discovered during a routine X-ray.

In many cases, the use of CT scans is invaluable but the reliance on them to provide even the most obvious diagnosis is putting patient health at grave risk. Three-quarters of all imaging tests performed in a medical setting are CT scans and they’re slowly phasing out the traditional X-ray. The problem with CT scans is that they expose patients to between 100- and 500-times the amount of radiation they would receive in a common X-ray.

For a person who visits the hospital or has a CT scan once every year or every other year on average, the risk of radiation overexposure is light. However, persistent use of CT scans, as is becoming more common, will greatly increase a person’s chance of developing some complication as a result. And those complications could take decades to develop.

Most at risk of suffering radiation overexposure are children. The Food and Drug Administration, echoing several recent studies on the effects of radiation exposure, has said that children should only receive CT scans when absolutely necessary.

Many physicians will order CT scans on their patients so as to avoid missing a potentially serious diagnosis. If a patient’s health insurance will cover the cost of the scan, the patient often thinks nothing of the test. Rarely, if ever, are they warned about the potential dangers of radiation overexposure caused by having the test done.

And as the use of CT scans increases, so does its application in the medical setting. Some tests haven’t conducted using CT scans haven’t even been tested for safety or effectiveness, according to the Times report. For instance, the use of these tests to conduct coronary artery scans to detect calcium build-up that could lead to a blood clot, heart attack, stroke, or death, is a growing trend among doctors and radiologists. However, this application has never been approved by the FDA and its results are questionable, at best. Moreover, the test is exposing patients to up to 600 times the amount of radiation they would have received during a normal chest X-ray. The Times report suggests, based on data it cobbled together, that CT scans used for coronary artery scans likely result in “42 additional cases of cancer for every 100,000 men who have the procedure, and 62 cases for every 100,000 women who do.”

Making matters even more confusing for patients is the inconsistency by which CT scans are delivered. In some hospitals, a patient could receive exponentially more radiation from the same test as they would have received from another location conducting the same test.

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