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Study Finds Many Physicians Are Underestimating the Radiation Risk of CT Scans

Cate Douglass
Computed tomography (CT) scans, a common imaging modality, can increase a person's risk of developing cancer later in life.
Computed tomography (CT) scans have long been used as diagnostic tools among physicians, helping them to get a better image of a patient’s health. However, researchers are discovering that a CT scan may be doing more harm than good.

A research study published in the Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences discovered that a CT scan emits harmful ionizing radiation that increases a patient’s risk for developing cancer later in life. The study compared CT scans to x-rays and found that the average radiation dose from an abdominal-pelvic CT scan can be compared to about 100 to 250 chest x-rays.

While it’s been commonly known that medical imaging tools emit harmful radiation, the study found that many physicians were underestimating its ability. Researchers found that about three-quarters of the physicians and technologists surveyed as well as 97% of radiologists believed there to be a risk of cancer from CT scan imaging. However, only 18% of physicians, 28% of radiologists, and 22% of technologists were able to select the appropriate dose of radiation from an abdominal-pelvic scan in relation to its equivalent in chest x-rays. 

“Underestimating radiation dose from a CT scan...may lead to minimization of the risk estimate when considering a test,” said Dr David Leswick, of the medical imaging department at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine and the study’s lead investigator, in a statement.

Study researchers determined that generally, radiologists and technologists demonstrated greater knowledge of a CT scan’s radiation risk than referring physicians. Of the surveyed physicians and technologists, a greater awareness was displayed among those who more commonly worked with CT scans than among those who did not.

The study also examined patient awareness and exposure to CT scanning radiation and showed that technologists were more likely to discuss the risk of radiation to a patient of any age. In comparison, the discussion of risk decreased with age; though, nearly all of study participants agreed that women who are pregnant should always be informed of the radiation risk associated with a CT scan.

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