ER Patients Put Faith in CT Scans

But most underestimate the degree of radiation exposure, study finds

THURSDAY, Dec. 16 (HealthDay News) -- People with acute abdominal pain who go to a hospital emergency department feel more confident about their diagnosis when they have a CT scan, a new study finds.

But nearly three-quarters of patients underestimate the radiation risk posed by this type of imaging test, the study found.

The researchers surveyed 1,168 patients with abdominal pain not caused by injury. Only 20 percent said they had confidence in a diagnosis reached after an evaluation using patient history and physical exam only. But 90 percent had confidence in a diagnosis reached after an evaluation that included patient history, physical exam, blood work and CT scan.

The study also found that 75 percent of patients underestimated the amount of radiation delivered by a CT scan, and only 3 percent understood that CT scans increase a person's lifetime risk of cancer. It's estimated that 1.5 percent to 2 percent of all cancers in the United States may be attributable to CT scan radiation.

The study was published online Dec. 10 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"Patients with abdominal pain are 4 times more confident in an exam that includes imaging than in an exam that has no testing," lead author Dr. Brigitte M. Baumann, of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Camden, said in a journal news release.

"Most of the patients in our study had little understanding of the amount of radiation delivered in one CT scan, never mind several over the course of a lifetime. Many of the patients did not recall earlier CT scans, even though they were listed in electronic medical records," she added.

"A recent FDA initiative aimed at reducing unnecessary radiation exposure from medical imaging is primarily focused on physician practices and providing patients with a record of their imaging history," Baumann noted.

"This is commendable, but it does not address patient expectations. Our findings demonstrated that current patient awareness efforts are not sufficient. As great a diagnostic tool as CT is, we need to do a better job of educating our patients about the risks associated with CT scans."

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about CT scans.

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