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Radiation Safety: What Patients Need To Know About Medical Imaging

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By: Leo M. Hartz, MD, MHM
September 9, 2011

A recent national news magazine article reported that some medical screenings and tests, including imaging studies, may not be necessary for low-risk patients. In fact, some screening tests, particularly CT scans, expose patients to radiation, which may elevate a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer.  Other tests, such as MRIs, may not use radiation, but still pose risks, including false positives, that may lead to overtreatment or even unnecessary treatment.

Patients in northeastern Pennsylvania should be particularly aware of these risks since data shows that the use of high-tech radiology services, such as CT scans and MRIs, in our area is several times higher than the national average.

There’s no question that medical imaging procedures have led to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of many medical conditions according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But before individuals decide to have a screening test, it’s important that they understand the potential risks and benefits.  

When used appropriately, following accepted evidence-based guidelines, the medical benefits from advanced imaging procedures generally outweigh the risks; but, if proper precautions are not taken, patients can be exposed to radiation without clinical need or benefit.  So it’s important to make sure that patients get the right imaging exam at the right time, and for the right reason.

Like many health insurers nationwide, we at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania are working to improve the coordination of care between our members and their doctors to ensure that they are receiving the appropriate care in the appropriate setting.  It’s important that members receive the right imaging tests for their condition, and that doctors know what imaging tests their patients are receiving.

Through this type of coordination, health insurers are helping to lower the risk of over-exposing patients to radiation, while improving the quality of care through appropriate testing based on that patient’s condition and health status.     

When doctors do recommend an imaging study, it is for the purpose of gathering important health information to help guide diagnosis and treatment. However, if patients are concerned about an imaging study recommended by their doctor, they should ask if alternative approaches can be tried first, and how the test results will be used to influence their treatment.

By working closely with their doctors and their insurer, and by being more informed, patients can play an active role in ensuring that they receive the most appropriate care that is both safe and effective.

Dr. Hartz is Vice President and Interim Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.  He is a family physician with more than 35 years of medical practice and health management experience.