We all love medical technology. It is fascinating. It is the stuff of science fiction, but in the real world, it can also raise medical costs and real risks of producing more disease than it detects.
One of the latest, well-advertised tests is the total body scan or EBT. Yes, it can detect calcium plaque in arteries which may indicate that you need to be taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, but it also may send the doctor testing for other things and raise the bill thousands of more dollars.
Some doctors refer to the full body scans as fishing expeditions-looking to find disease for which there are no current symptoms. The scans are prone to report false-positive results. This means they report findings that indicate disease when there really isn't any.
Scans can promote a false sense of security. If it reported no problems and you are now having chest pain, would you go to your doctor or pass it off as gas since the scan had said you were well?
Now, findings from the scientists at Columbia University and published in the journal Radiology report that the radiation dose from a full body CT scan is the same as that received by some of the survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It delivers 100 times more radiation than a mammogram.
The scan is useful as a diagnostic tool for people with certain symptoms. As a screening tool in healthy people, it just produces a group of worriers.
When the cost of medical care is too high for some to be able to afford health care insurance and when the government has just announced a large increase in the cost of Medicare for seniors, wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary testing is not justifiable.
But the bottom line may not just be an issue of money, it may also be one of ethics. Is it right to promote an expensive test that gives unproven results? In an article over two years ago, the journal Medical Economics asked if they should be called full body scans or scams.
This is a case about the quality of care. More is not necessarily better in medicine. We have to be careful that we are not hoodwinked by sexy technology.
Unfortunately, prevention of disease remains much more boring. It is diet and exercise and moderation. Not very glamorous but certainly less expensive. And now, it also appears less dangerous.