The health risks associated with radiation exposure, whether it comes from cancer treatments or medical imaging scans, are much more significant than most people probably think. The latest published data on radiation exposure suggests that roughly 25,000 Americans develop cancer every year as a result of medical radiation exposure, and many more experience DNA damage that could eventually lead to the development of cancer and other health problems in the long term.
Every year, millions of Americans opt to undergo computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and X-ray scans for medical purposes, thinking that by doing so, they are keeping up with the latest technologies in advanced medical care. But each time medical patients get one of these scans, their bodies sustain varying levels of ionizing radiation, the negative effects of which can take years to manifest as they build up cumulatively over time.
CT scans, which are a relatively modern medical imaging technology, are particularly problematic as they emit far higher doses of radiation than traditional x-rays do. Based on the figures, a single CT scan can blast up to 500 times the amount of radiation released by a single x-ray, an astounding level when considering how gratuitously CT scans are administered within the medical profession today.
In a new study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), it is reported that the use of all medical imaging scans, including CT scans, has risen dramatically between 1996 and 2010. The use of CT scans in particular, more than tripled during this time, which is in large part responsible for doubling the proportion of patients now receiving what is considered to be “high” or “very high” radiation doses on a regular basis.
Overuse of CT scans causing significant uptick in cancer rates
Failing to recognize the long-term health consequences of repeated and perpetual exposure among their patients, many doctors needlessly order CT scans for patients who do not need them, or order multiple scans when only one is necessary. Data compiled from outpatient claims filed through Medicare, for instance, reveals that CT scans are routinely overused at hundreds of hospitals across the country, and that patients are needlessly “double scanned” more than 80 percent of the time. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/18/health/18radiation.html)
The high cost of CT scanning equipment has also led to an epidemic of unnecessary CT scans at private practices as well. Because they know that, most of the time, insurance companies and government health programs will reimburse them, many doctors simply default to CT scans whenever there is even a remote possibility that they might be useful — and oftentimes these doctors double-up on scans as well, even though this is almost never medically necessary.
“Double scans expose patients to extra radiation while heaping millions of dollars in extra costs on an already overburdened Medicare program,” wrote Walt Bogdanich and Jo Craven McGinty in the NYT, concerning CT scan abuse within government healthcare.
Besides the added costs to the medical system, medical imaging overuse is destroying the physical health of many Americans. According to data compiled by Jane Brody over at the New York Times (NYT), radiation exposure from medical scans now accounts for 1.5 percent of all cancers that occur in the U.S. Based on figures released by the American Cancer Society (ACS), this translates to about 24,583 Americans that develop cancer every year as a result of Western medicine. (http://www.cancer.org/Research/CancerFactsFigures/ACSPC-031941)
“All imaging has increased, but CTs account for the bulk of it,” said Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a specialist in radiology and biomedical imaging at the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) to the NYT. “There’s clearly widespread overuse. More than 10 percent of patients each year are receiving very high radiation exposures.”
Some doctors refusing to provide care unless patients submit to imaging scans
Despite their known dangers, CT and other risky imaging scans are often pushed on patients by doctors who refuse to provide care unless patients submit to their orders. Presumably to protect themselves against litigation, many doctors will insist that their patients undergo multiple imaging scans in order to confirm a medical condition, even when doing so puts patient safety at risk.
Fortunately, many health insurers are now taking notice of this rampant abuse, and are putting policy measures in place to discourage it. These include requiring preauthorizations before patients can receive scans, for instance, or restricting who can administer the scans, and on what types of equipment.
Sources for this article include: