Study Finds Medical CT, PET Scans Pose Serious Radiation Risk

August 27, 2009

(ChattahBox)—A new study raises the alarm about the potential for harmful radiation exposure from medical imaging scans, which could exceed the annual exposure allowed for nuclear power plant employees. The rise in the use of CT and PET scans has led to at least four million Americans under age 65 exposed to high doses of radiation each year.

Lead researchers, Dr. Reza Fazel, a cardiologist at Emory University and Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale, surveyed the records of about one million patients insured by UnitedHealthcare from 2005 to 2007.

According to a piece in the New York Times, “the researchers calculated the amount of radiation received by the patients by looking at insurance codes for various kinds of imaging tests. Exposure is measured in millisieverts; the average American receives about three millisieverts a year from all sources.”

The results of the study were astonishing, leading the researchers to question the need for so many repeat imaging tests. The researchers found that during a one-year period, at least 1.9 percent of the patients received at least 20 millisieverts of radiation, or nearly seven times the average exposure.

Of that exposed group, about 10 percent of the patients, were exposed to at least 50 millisieverts, more than the annual maximum allowed by nuclear regulators. The researchers concluded from these findings, that four million Americans receive cumulative doses exceeding 20 millisieverts a year.

Even exposure to small does of radiation pose a cancer risk, but cumulative exposure from repeated imaging tests puts patients at great risk for developing cancers.

Since doctors have purchased their own imaging machines, the tests have increased rapidly. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated that CT scans given to Medicare patients nearly quadrupled from 1995 to 2005, with PET scans increasing at a faster rate.

The researchers question the efficacy of the routine use of imaging scans in assisting doctors to make better medical decisions, especially when there is a radiation exposure risk. “These procedures have a cost, not just in terms of dollars, but in terms of radiation risk,” said Dr. Fazel.

The study is available in the New England Journal of Medicine.


Comments

4 Responses to “Study Finds Medical CT, PET Scans Pose Serious Radiation Risk”

  1. Mike Hanley on August 27th, 2009 2:26 pm

    The NEJM article refers to radiation doses that are “moderate, high, and very high”. Assigning that description to an arbitrary number (50 mSv for example) does not aid this important discussion, nor does it address the real issue. Appropriate studies provide great benefit and should continue without fear of the assumed increased cancer risk. Likewise, studies that provide no clinical information should not be performed even if they are “low dose”. Medical decisions always involve weighing the risks and benefits of a procedure or medication. You can visit the radiation dose calculator at http://www.xrayrisk.com to calculate cancer risk based on CT scans, x-rays, nuclear medicine and interventional procedures performed.

  2. Lin on August 27th, 2009 3:47 pm

    Doctors that own their own CT scanners order 5-TO-8 TIMES MORE CT scans than those that do not own their own scanners. Why? PURE PROFIT AND GREED. A bill has been trying to make it through Congress to close the loophole that allows this abuse, however the lobby of doctors who abuse the system, and the manufacturers who sell that scanners, is too strong. The bill/amendment (HR2962) has been squashed by those who will continue over-radiating patients for profit.

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