NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

New Imaging Technology Promises Early Alzheimer's Detection

May 12, 2003

Hospitals are scrambling to buy positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, the latest high-tech medical-imaging tool used in cancer detection. The tool also holds promise for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

PET technology took off in 2001, after Medicare sharply expanded coverage of the scans as a cancer test. Hospitals have been on a buying binge ever since, for fear of losing cancer patients to competitors if they don't have one of the costly machines.

Purchases of PET scanners, each with a $1 million to $2.5 million price tag, are a significant factor in the explosion in medical-imaging spending, helping push up medical costs nationwide. At present, an estimated 575 PET scanners are operating in the United States.

PET scans are starting to be used for early detection of Alzheimer's disease.

  • However, Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled, recently gave a thumbs down to coverage of PET scans for this purpose, saying more research is needed to prove a benefit to patients.
  • Medical-imaging companies and scientists, who battled Medicare to extend coverage of PET scans for cancer diagnosis, now are back in Washington to fight for Alzheimer's approval.
  • Meanwhile, some experts worry that if too many hospitals and clinics install PET systems, doctors will come under financial pressure to help pay for the expensive equipment by ordering unnecessary tests.

Certainly, the proliferation of computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems during the past 15 years has led to questionable use of those costly technologies in patients with simple medical complaints. Once a new technology is out there, it creates an opportunity for excess use, warn experts.

Source: Rhonda L. Rundle, "PET Scanners Become New RX for Diagnostics," Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2003.

For text (WSJ subscription required),,SB105217048781408600-search,00.html


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