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CT scans, cancer risk and health care costs

New research puts a number on the cancer risk that the growing number of CT scans can pose patients -- the latest evidence that the scans may be overused.

The 70 million CT scans done in 2007 -- a jump from just 3 million in 1980 (!) -- could ultimately cause 29,000 new cancer cases, according to estimates from the study, which appears in the latest Archives of Internal Medicine

Doctors like the scans because they provide super-clear pictures inside the body. Their use has transformed medicine, allowing earlier diagnoses and treatment. But the research, the latest among several papers of late to raise doubts about whether CT scans make people healthier, suggests the imaging can do more harm than good. 

We've written before about not only the potential dangers of excessive imaging -- but how it contributes to skyrocketing health care costs. Those scans are pricey and can bring in big money to doctors practices, hospitals and imaging centers.

At a time when the nation is trying to rein in health care costs, could more prudent use of CT scans help?

An editorial appearing with the study takes on the issue of costs: 

 A recent Government Accountability Office report on medical imaging, for example, found an 8-fold variation between states on expenditures for in-office medical imaging; given the lack of data indicating that patients do better in states with more imaging and given the highly profitable nature of diagnostic imaging, the wide variation suggests that there may be significant overuse in parts of the country.

As far as the cancer risk is concerned, imaging experts say they are looking at ways to reduce a patient's radiation exposure. At Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, a CT Radiation Reduction Project studies ways to reduce the use and exposure to our patients. There's also efforts to use software to "tailor" the amount of radiation used per patient.

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