A Radiologist Replies to ‘Medical Radiation Soars, With Risks Often Overlooked’

A few weeks ago, the New York Times featured an article, “Medical Radiation Soars, With Risks Often Overlooked.” The article brought up some valid points about radiation, but also requires readers to take a step back when processing some of the information given.

Yes, as the article ascertains, radiation has its indisputable medical advantages, in addition to its potential medical downsides. The amount of medical imaging, including CT scans, has significantly increased over the last few decades, as more life-saving procedures are discovered and as technology develops. As a result, some patients are subjected to higher levels of radiation, which, according to this article, is “believed to account or 1.5 percent of cancers” in the United States.

The piece goes on to say that “the cancer-causing effects of radiation are cumulative” and that doctors and hospitals fail to track the amount of radiation patients have already been exposed to when ordering a new exam. While it is critical to practice “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) for every protocol and to closely scrutinize every exam request for appropriateness, there is absolutely no evidence that risk from well spaced CT exams is cumulative. Therefore, canceling an otherwise appropriate exam because of cumulative dose may not be in the patient’s best interests. For all CT exams a risk/benefit evaluation should be made by a well informed radiologist. For the existence of multiple prior exams alone to change the risk/ benefit ratio would be extremely rare.

Additionally, the claim that “no one” keeps track of how much radiation patients have been exposed to is inaccurate. A number of institutions, including UW, are a part of the American College of Radiology’s Dose Index Registry, a program striving to accurately track CT radiation dose in order to establish benchmarks, monitor patient radiation dose exposure, and compare patterns. More recently, a pediatric dose registry was introduced to perform similar functions, but for a younger demographic.

Both doctors and patients should be as informed as possible when it comes to radiation. Understanding the risk/ benefit ratio is an important part of this—and no appropriate medical imaging exam should be cancelled if it will benefit the patient, especially if its radiation level is ALARA.