CT Scans and Patient Safety: The Debate for Solutions Rages On

A recent article addressing the ongoing debate over the safe use of medical imaging features the opinions of two industry experts on how we should be working to lower radiation doses from CT scans and other imaging exams.

On one side of the debate is Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, who believes that it should be the job of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to protect patients by regulating radiation from CT scanners. “Radiation doses are higher than they should be and they vary dramatically within and between facilities and that is not acceptable,” she said in the article.

Dr. Bruce Hillman, on the other hand, believes that the problem lies with doctors who order too many scans (which can lead to finding conditions that might have been better left untreated). And, according to the article, he thinks that “heaping more regulation on an industry that has already been squeezed by Medicare cuts may squelch the kind of innovation that produced CT scanners in the first place.”

In my opinion, there are three answers to this storm:

1.  We need to make greater efforts to strive for appropriate use of CT. For that we can turn to the best authority available: the American College of Radiology Appropriateness Guidelines. Computerized decision support programs in electronic medical records can help, too.

2.  We need to strive for much lower radiation dose per scan. We know that the dose per scan frequently can be reduced by up to 60 percent by the use of better CT techniques (selection of imaging parameters, shielding) and by modern CT technology. Here guidelines from organizations like the Society for Computed Body Tomography (SCBT/MR), an arm of the ACR, can be helpful and can drive education for all levels of healthcare providers.

3.  We need to ensure that financial incentives leading to conflict of interest are minimized, so that patients can be comfortable that any CT scans are done only for appropriate diagnostic investigation.

Finally, in all the storm about cost and radiation fear, we need to remember that CT is a very powerful diagnostic tool that provides definitive information which can be used to save lives and select the best therapy quickly. It does far more good than harm — in every institution, every day.