KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Study: Patients May Face Radioactive Risk From Imaging Tests

"At least four million Americans under age 65 are exposed to high doses of radiation each year from medical imaging tests, according to a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine," The New York Times reports.  And about ten percent of those patients "receive very high doses, more than the maximum annual exposure allowed for nuclear power plant employees or anyone else who works with radioactive material." The study was based on a survey of nearly one million patients insured by UnitedHealthcare.

Though the study didn't estimate the number of new cancer cases caused by the radioactive scans, a cardiologist and imaging expert told the Times, "It's certain that there are increased rates of cancer at low levels of radiation, and as you increase the levels of radiation, you increase cancer." She estimates that imaging would cause "tens of thousands" of new cancers (Berenson, 8/26). 

The number of CT scans ordered has quadrupled since 1992, The Baltimore Sun reports. They represent one of the fastest growing costs in health care. The Sun adds: "Dr. Michael S. Lauer, director of the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, said one of the biggest obstacles to restricting the number of radiologic tests is that not enough is known about whether most of them make patients feel better or live longer. X-rays for broken bones are obvious, but high-tech CT scans of the heart haven't been medically proved to improve health and they expose patients to much higher levels of radiation" (Desmon, 8/27).

This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.