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Medical Imaging Tests Are Overused

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The number of CT scans per patient doubled and MRIs per patient tripled from 1997 to 2006, according to a study published on Monday in the journal Health Affairs, the Wall Street Journal reports. Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from five million diagnostic tests from 377,000 patients enrolled in the Group Health Cooperative HMO in Washington state during the study period. The researchers found increases in all types of electronic imaging tests, with the average annual cost per patient almost doubling from $229 to $443 (Wall Street Journal, 11/10).

General use of imaging tests also nearly doubled, increasing from 260 to 478 tests per 1,000 patients. Researchers found that 13.5% of participants in the study group had undergone CT scans, MRIs or both in 1997, compared with 21% in 2006. Rates of imaging with conventional X-rays remained relatively stable, according to the San Jose Mercury News (Krieger, San Jose Mercury News, 11/10).

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According to the Mercury News, the study confirms previous reports of a trend of over-imaging. Lead researcher Smith-Bindman said, "The new technologies are fantastic. But they should be used judiciously" (San Jose Mercury News, 11/10). She also noted that the patterns of increase were consistent among every group and ailment examined, which could make it difficult to target specific groups to decrease spending (Wall Street Journal, 11/10).

Geoffrey Rubin, a radiology professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said that medical imaging may seem expensive or excessive but it can offer substantial benefits. "If imaging resulted in a more expedient or accurate diagnosis leading to earlier or more appropriate treatment -- then overall health care costs, time away from productive lives and jobs, and general quality of life could have substantially improved," he said (San Jose Mercury News, 11/10).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.