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Are Patients In U.S. Over-Exposed?

Radiation Treatment

Are patients in the United States over-exposed to radiation from medical imaging procedures?

A report released earlier this week by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) states that in 2006, Americans were exposed to more than seven times as much radiation from medical procedures than they were in the early 1980s.

Does that mean that patients are over-exposed? In the early 1980’s, there was not as much use of computed tomography (CT) or nuclear medicine. The technology has improved, along with its use, over the past 20-30 years.

Medical exposure constitutes nearly half of the total radiation exposure that a person living in the U.S. receives from all sources. Background radiation comes from natural radiation in soil and rocks, radon gas which seeps into homes and other buildings, plus radiation from space and radiation sources that are found naturally within the human body.

Of medical radiation exposure, CT scans and nuclear medical procedures account for 36 % of the total radiation exposure. They make up 75% of the medical radiation exposure of the U.S. population.

While these imaging exams are often needed to guide clinical and treatment decisions, the question remains -- Are patients in the United States over-exposed to radiation from medical imaging procedures?

Do physicians order too many of these exams? If so, why? Is it the fear of malpractice? Is it the fear of missing something? Is there a financial reason as more physicians owe all or part of the stand-alone imaging centers?

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The answers to those questions matter because the cost of the exams are a significant part of the medical costs in the U.S. A study by the Government Accountability Office in July found Medicare spending on medical imaging doubled to about $14 billion a year between 2000 and 2006, driven largely by increases in high-tech imaging.

It also matters because the increased radiation exposure can lead to increased cancer rates in years to come. As many as 7 percent of patients will have enough radiation exposure from CT scans during their lifetime to slightly raise their risk of cancer.

What you as the patient can do:

Keep a record of your X-ray history. Before undergoing a scan, should ask your physician:

* Why do I need this exam?

* How will having this exam improve my health care?

* Are there alternatives that do not use radiation which are equally as good?
* Is my child receiving a “kid-sized” radiation dose? (for pediatric exams)

National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements
American College of Radiology



Medical decisions always involve weighing the risks and benefits of a procedure or medication. CT scans that will potentially provide life saving information should not be avoided for fear of an assumed small increased risk of cancer.