Patients Undergoing Medical Scans Often Unaware Of Risks

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Oh, this is fascinating to me, especially since I am married to a radiologist.  He has told me many of times that people come into the ER complaining of some type of minor pain, and health care providers order full body scans which are a waste.  It is sad to see that a new study shows that over half of people receiving medical scans such as X-rays do not know if they are exposed to radiation and many have unanswered questions even as they are waiting to undergo the test, a small U.S. survey found.

As I’ve blogged about before, if a patient is given more information and can share in the decision-making process, they are more satisfied with their treatment and have less anxiety.  The study  came out in Journal of the American College of Radiology and the lead author was  Dr. Andrew Rosenkrantz.  He told Reuters Health that while the United States performs a high volume of medical scans, many patients are not informed about what the tests entail.  How did he come to this conclusion?   Since Ronsenkrantz is an associate professor of Radiology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, he was able to recruit 176 patients who were waiting to have medical imaging scans, including CT and nuclear medicine scans, which involve radiation, and MRI and ultrasounds, which do not.  The participants did surveys which inquired about their knowledge regarding their procedures, and what the tests were for. They also reported on whether their doctor had explained the exam, how well it was explained and whether they still had unanswered questions.   The researchers found that only about 46 percent of people correctly identified whether the test they were about to undergo employed radiation. Among people who would be drinking a radioactive contrast agent for their test, just over half knew it, while among those who would be getting the contrast agent by injection, just over 70 percent knew it. Patients understood the most about CT scans, a powerful type of X-ray that shows cross-sections of the body. Patients reported the least understanding of nuclear medicine, in which the radioactive liquid contrast agents are used to enhance the image.  About 78 percent of participants said their doctor explained the exam in advance and 72 percent were satisfied with the explanation. However, nearly one in five still had unanswered questions while awaiting the test.

For each kind of exam, those who had not had the test before had less understanding of it.  One in five patients had used the Internet to learn about the exam, while the same proportion consulted friends and family.  In addition, over half of patients said they would be interested in discussing the exam with a radiologist in advance.  According to the CDC, although the benefits of medical testing generally outweigh the risks, being exposed to radiation can increase a person’s risk of getting cancer later in life.

Rosenkrantz noted that the results may be a little off, since people who knew the answers to the survey questions may have been more likely to complete the survey. For this reason, the study results may show a higher level of awareness than is actually true for most people, he pointed out.

What should we learn from this study?  Engage your doctors.  Ask them  if the test is necessary, what are the risks and what are the alternatives.

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