NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

CT Scanning: Imperfect and Overused

January 30, 2004

Over the past five years, Computed Tomography (CT scanning) has become increasingly popular among those willing and able to pay their own medical bills. It is touted as way to detect life-threatening disease early. A CT scan screens a patient's torso (and sometimes their head), emitting powerful radiation about 30 times the strength of a chest X-ray that can uncover lumps or other irregularities. Most patients do not consult their doctor before having the procedure.

Though CT scans show promise in the preventive care for patients with elevated risks of heart or lung disease, many health experts argue that the process is not ready for widespread usage. Among these critics are the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American College of Radiology and the Health Physics Society. With little research endorsing CT scans, they caution consumers that:

  • Suspicious anomalies often turn up that may not reflect disease (a false positive).
  • CT scans do not guarantee a clean bill of health -- some diseases such as colon cancer are typically not revealed on routine screenings (a false negative).
  • Many doctors feel obligated to treat an abnormality even though it is not likely to extend one's life expectancy.
  • CT scans are expensive -- ranging in cost from $300 to $1,000 -- and are generally not covered by insurance.

Moreover, some warn that, while patients pay for their own initial body scans, the financial burden falls on public and private health insurers for subsequent procedures should any abnormality be found. Other critics argue that guidelines need to be put in place such that consumers are informed of the limitations of CT scans as well as the likelihood of false positive and false negative results.

Source: Janet Raloff, "Do You Need a Whole-Body Scan for your Health?" Consumers' Research, December 2003.


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