CT Makers: Make Sure Scans Are Really Needed

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In February, the makers of CT scanners pledged to do a better job of protecting patients from radiation risks. And a trade group for the companies said safeguards would be added to the scanners that warn technicians when the machines are about to exceed recommended radiation doses. The makers of the machines are now supporting a message of moderation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we turn to a form of radiation that has generated far more concern: The doses from X-ray machines that help doctors diagnose illness.

NPR's Scott Hensley reports that the government, manufacturers and doctors are taking a closer look.

SCOTT HENSLEY: When several stroke patients at a Los Angeles hospital started losing their hair and complaining of reddened skin, doctors looked at a patient's brain scans as a possible culprit. What they found was that the imaging machines were giving the patients too much radiation. This extreme example launched an investigation.

But scientists are concerned about radiation damage that builds up over a lifetime from routine test, too, particularly when it comes to CT scanners, which take 3D pictures inside the body.

Simon Choi, a radiation and health expert at the Food and Drug Administration, explains the concern.

Dr. SIMON CHOI (Radiation and Health Expert, Food and Drug Administration): Some publications have said even approximately 20,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans performed in the U.S.

HENSLEY: To reduce those risks, the agency is urging doctors to make sure each CT scan they order is really needed. The agency wants patients to talk to their doctors about alternatives.

Dr. CHOI: Patients could ask: What is the justification for this procedure? Are there other options for me?

HENSLEY: Other choices that don't expose patients to X-rays include ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

The FDA also supports safeguards for scanners to alert technicians when radiation doses are too high. The changes are in the works for new CT scanners, and manufacturers are also working to retrofit existing machines.

CT scans provide valuable information to doctors, and the agency isn't suggesting that patients forgo necessary scans. But even makers of the machines are now supporting a message of moderation.

Dave Fisher heads a trade group for scanner makers.

Mr. DAVE FISHER (Executive Director, Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance): The last thing we want, as manufacturers, is individuals receiving scans they don't need.

HENSLEY: The companies say they are working with the FDA to minimize radiation exposure.

Scott Hensley, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: To see how much radiation you might be exposed to, check out our website at npr.org.

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