CT Scans Causing Cancer?

Thanks to decreased prices and greater availability, the number of CT scans performed last year more than tripled from the number recording in 1995, up to 68.7 million.

Thanks to decreased prices and greater availability, benefits over MRI, the potential for huge increases in revenue (tens of billions of dollars in billing each year)—and the resulting increased availability to and use by private practices—the number of CT scans performed last year more than tripled from the number recording in 1995, up to 68.7 million, according to research from IMV Medical Information Division, a medical market research group in Des Plaines, IL, the results of which were published in the LA Times on Sunday. Today, more than 24,000 machines have been purchased, with current scanners going for about $1 million.

With a single-organ scan that can cost a few hundred dollars and full-body scans that can reach a few thousand dollars, performing just two scans a day allows a practice to pay for the machine in five years, with tens scans per day bringing in more than $400,000 in profits per year, according to a Siemens sales brochure.

Plus, CT scans are cheaper than MRIs and don’t require patients to lie in a clanging cylinder for 30 minutes or more. They’ve also been advanced to the point that they can freeze subtle motions of the gut and the heaving of the lungs while breathing. And all of it’s done without an invasive procedure. Thus, the technology has been used to conduct virtual colonoscopies, lung cancer screenings, blood vessel inspections, and monitoring and detection of such conditions as kidney stones, headaches, and appendicitis.

But what are the repercussions of increased use, aside from the huge expense to patients with no or weak health insurance? According to the Times article, “with the boom has come a rising concern that the abundant use of radiation is beginning to have a subtle effect on the health of the nation. Although the risk of a single CT scan to an individual is minuscule, even a tiny increase in radiation exposure spread over a large population can eventually add up to tens of thousands of cancer deaths a year.” Results of a study published in the November 29, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that as much as 2% of the cancer deaths in 20 to 30 years could be a result of the CT scans administered today. And researchers estimate that as many as one-third of these scans could have been avoided or replace by safer technologies, like ultrasound or MRI.

“The problem is they are almost too good,” said UCLA radiologist Dr. Jonathan Goldin. “People want to take a picture of everything just in case... In 20 or 30 years, the radiation debate will be like the smoking debate today. People will say, 'Why did I get this imaging in the first place?'”

Check out the full LA Times article, to read about the specifics of cancer risk related to CT scans, new questions to be asked, and the personal stories or patients affected by repeat CT scans. Then tell us what you think! Are CT scans causing cancer?