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Doctor warns of radiation exposure 'epidemic'

Armen Hareyan's picture

CT Scanning and radiation exposure

It is time the medical profession became aware of the epidemic of exposure to diagnostic radiation in patients and did something about it, argues radiologist, Steven Birnbaum, in this week's BMJ.

He warns that many doctors, including radiologists, have limited knowledge of the doses and of the potential consequences of the massive increase in diagnostic medical radiation exposure.

He describes his horror as his daughter underwent multiple CT scans after being hit by a car.

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"I had seen few examples of radiation overexposure in the community hospital setting in which I work and was beginning to act on this," he says. "Now I saw it happen to my own daughter. I was horrified. I asked the surgical chief resident if any thought had been given to radiation exposure in patients when doctors ordered CT studies."

A spiral scan of the abdomen or pelvis exposes a patient to about 10 mSv of radiation, he explains. The risk of one or two studies is negligible but, in young patients, five or more of these studies may lead to over exposure. However, CT is life saving technology, he says, and carefully balancing the risks and benefits is increasingly important as these studies become easier and faster to do.

In the United States, an estimated 60 million CT studies were done in 2006, yet many doctors have limited knowledge in this area, he adds.

He now gives talks on radiation safety issues to educate clinicians and radiologists, and has been appointed to a panel on radiation dose in medicine of the American College of Radiology. The New Hampshire Radiologic Society has also embraced plans for identifying and monitoring patients who may have been overexposed to radiation from CT scans.

"I have become a zealot in trying to stem this tide," he concludes.