Questions Patients Must Ask Before an MRI or CT Scan

It’s always intimidating to undergo an MRI scan or CT scan. The machines are loud and enormous and seem to swallow your body. For all the trouble and expense, patients deserve the very latest scanning equipment and should have their images read by only the most highly qualified doctors. Alas, there is a quiet scandal in the $100 billion/year medical imaging industry. Patients cannot count on the best unless they insist on it.

As quoted by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, radiology leaders say, in the words of one: “The system is just totally, totally broken.” That from Dr. Vijay Rao, chair of radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. One big problem is that insurers pay standard rates for scans, even if a scan on a 10-year-old machine produces a blurry image and results in patients undergoing unnecessary surgery or missing a diagnosis. There is also no financial incentive for scanning facilities to have the images interpreted by sub-specialists with more expertise in the body part being studied. But there is a big financial incentive for doctors to own their own scanning equipment, and that results in many unnecessary referrals for scans when the doctor’s judgment about the patient’s needs is clouded by financial conflicts of interest.

Wise patients should ask pointed questions before submitting to any imaging scan. Here is a list, adapted from Patrick Malone’s new book, The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst, available at Amazon.

1. Is the scanning machine the latest generational available? If not, is there another facility nearby that has the latest generation? (In MRI scans for example, the stronger magnets on newer machines make for crisper images.)

2. Does the doctor who wants me to have this scan own the scanning equipment or the scanning facility? (If so, get an opinion from another doctor with no financial interest about whether you need the scan at this facility.)

3. Who will interpret the images? Is that doctor a sub-specialist in what’s being studied? (Examples of radiology sub-specialties include musculo-skeletal, neuroradiology (brain and spine), abdominal and chest.) If not, can we get a second reading from a sub-specialist?

4. Is the scanning facility accredited by the American College of Radiology? (This ensures that basic standards are met, such as the technologist who runs the scanning machine being certified and the machine being regularly inspected for proper functioning.)

Involved patients will also want to sit down with the doctor and look at the images together. You will notice how much more detail comes out when the scan has been done on an up-to-date machine by well-trained personnel. In the New York Times article, you can see in a knee scan how the ligament is blurry on the left-side image but comes out clearly in the image on the right — a slanting striated structure that connects the middle of the top of the tibia to the back of the femur.

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