Assessing the Patient Safety Risks of CT Scans

Thursday June 23, 2011

Diagnosis is a crucial element of medical treatment, and radiological techniques such as x-rays, CT scans and MRIs play a major role in early detection of health issues. But radiology errors and associated medical malpractice issues also present significant risks, and patients should thus not be exposed to unnecessary radiation without a solid cause.

Use of CT scans during visits to the ER by children has increased 500 percent since 1995, and 25 percent of elderly ER patients received CT scans in 2007, according to a study recently published in the journal Radiology. One danger of excessive scans identified by some health care experts is the identification and subsequent treatment of “incidentalomas,” meaning incidental findings of cysts that are likely benign.

All too often, a painful biopsy reads inconclusive and then diagnostic protocol advances to further surgery and a major medical event for a patient who may be perfectly healthy. A 2007 study published in the New England of Journal of Medicine concluded that 30 percent of CT scans were completely unnecessary. Another study conducted at the Mayo Clinic concluded that a very small percentage of patients ultimately benefitted from discovery of an incidental condition during excessive diagnosis.

Exposing patients to radiation may be much safer than it once was, but the risks are still serious, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and children. For this reason, some doctors advise against radiological diagnostic procedures such as lung cancer scans for asymptomatic patients, and argue that a patient who has symptoms consistent with gastronitis, kidney stones or appendicitis should be treated accordingly. Due to the risks involved in radiological diagnostic procedures, patients should educate themselves before agreeing to these kinds of tests.

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