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Unnecessary CT scans, Advertising come-ons don't mention the risks

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Unnecessary CT scans
Advertising come-ons don't mention the risks.
September 04, 2004
Source: Press Telegram

Here's a suggestion that could save you $800 to $1,500: If you've been planning to treat yourself to a full-body CT scan for your health's sake, don't. For your health's sake.

You've probably read the advertising come-ons about how CT scans can spot diseases before they are otherwise detectable. And maybe you've heard a friend's tale of relief, having had a "clean" scan, or concern, having had a less happy finding. Either had a high probability of being useless.

But not cheap, especially since health insurance plans don't cover elective CT (which stands for computerized tomography). And, it turns out, for good reason. Except in limited circumstances, they can cause more problems than they solve.

A study released last week says that whole-body CT scans significantly increase the patient's risk of developing cancer. The radiation from a single whole-body scan equals that of 100 mammograms, or about what you might have received if you'd experienced the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki from a distance of about 1 1/2 miles.

That's problem enough. But experience also has shown that when the scan does come up with a negative finding, it's so inconclusive it often requires invasive follow-up tests, such as surgery, which present their own risks.

A CT scanner uses an electron gun to send a stream of electrons through a coil, which deflects them onto a circular ring and deflector. The patient, lying on a moving table, is passed through the ring. The X-ray exposures are then analyzed by a computer program that creates three- dimensional images of the body.

The latest study, by researchers David J. Brenner and Carl B. Elliston of Columbia University, used information from atomic-bomb survivors because enough time has elapsed, 50 years, for cancers to develop.

Because radiation-caused cancers don't make themselves known for many years, so far no tumors have been traced to exposure by CT scans, which have been around only for a few years. The study estimates, however, that a single whole-body CT scan produces enough radiation to cause a tumor in every 1,200 people; and annual scans for 30 years starting at age 47 would produce a tumor in every 50 patients.

This clearly suggests that casual use of a whole-body CT scan is a bad idea. But what if your doctor prescribes one? In that case, the risks, which are relatively small for a single scan, are reversed. A CT scan can be crucially important in refining a diagnosis that could resolve a potentially life- threatening situation.

So make use of a CT scan if your doctor advises it. Otherwise, don't waste your money on unneeded radiation.



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