No doubt CT scans have improved a doctor's ability to make diagnoses. The ability to see inside the body without cutting it open has meant better treatment.
But CT scans can deliver high doses of radiation, which can lead to cancer later in life, or in severe cases, can cause severe burns and even death.
Patricia Anstett of the Detroit Free Press has a piece this morning that catalogues what some hospitals and medical professionals are doing to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure. She writes, "statewide, a project at 15 Michigan hospitals last year successfully lowered radiation doses in heart and blood vessel scans without sacrificing image quality... Later this month, a new national campaign called Image Wisely will focus attention on the issue even further."
Earlier this year, Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times brought a lot of attention to the issue. He did a series of pieces on the overuse of CT scans and the more frightening reality of mistakes made by CT scan operators. If the operator makes a mistake, or the machine is not functioning properly, it can deliver beams of high-energy radiation that can kill patients. Bogdanich writes of two sad cases where this happened.
And while severe accidents are rare, the Times article says "accidents are chronically underreported, records show, and some states do not require that they be reported at all."
A more common problem is the routine use of CT scans for diagnosis. Bogdanich writes:
Americans today receive far more medical radiation than ever before. The average lifetime dose of diagnostic radiation has increased sevenfold since 1980, and more than half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy.
Anstett of the Detroit Free Press spoke with Dr. Ella Kazerooni, a University of Michigan professor of radiology. Kazerooni says as many as one-third of all medical tests are unnecessary. The reasons for unnecessary testing "include a doctor's fear of being sued for not ordering a scan; pressure from patients to have the tests, and referrals by doctors to imaging centers in which they may have a financial interest."