Emergency Room Use of CT Scans Soars

Another episode in the if-you-build-it-they-will-come (and pay) story of medical technology has been written recently by hospital emergency rooms. In 1996, about 3 in 100 ER patients were given a CT scan; by 2007, the figure had grown nearly fivefold, to 1 in 7 ER patients, according to a new study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Does this greater diagnostic investment result in fewer people being admitted to the hospital – which is a good thing – or are CTs being overused, and padding the health-care bill without much payoff?

The hospitalization rate following a CT scan was 26% in 1996, and 12% percent in 2007. During that period, the overall hospitalization rate of ER patients rose from about 11% to about 13%.

The cost-benefit issue was examined recently by Kaiser Health News, not only in the context of cost, but because CT scans – which render a three-dimensional image by coordinating a series of X-rays taken from multiple angles – can subject patients to excess radiation.

The researchers, from the University of Michigan Health System, said the radiation risk could be higher for children, patients receiving multiple scans and those who develop complications from the intravenous dyes the imaging often requires.

The American College of Emergency Physicians claimed that fewer patients being admitted to the hospital can be attributed partly to the diagnostic tool.

Hard to argue with a technology that appears to help cut hospital admissions by half, but the study also finds that this positive effect of CT scanning “appeared to diminish after 2003” when the rate “flattened and stabilized” as CT use continued to rise.

Dr. Keith Kocher, the study’s lead author, said, “There are risks to overuse of CT scans … so if they’re done for marginal reasons you have to question why. For example, patients who complained of flank pain (pain in the side) had an almost 1 in 2 chance of getting a CT scan by the end of the study period. Usually most physicians are doing that to look for a kidney stone, but it’s not clear if it’s necessary to use a CT scan for that purpose.”

“Also, during the study period, [emergency department] visits increased by about 30 percent,” Kocher said, “while CT use increased 330 percent, meaning the rate of CT use grew 11 times faster than the rate of ED visits.”

Several factors contribute to the increased use of CT scans:

  • the greater availability of the equipment;
  • doctors’ fear of being sued for malpractice;
  • a perception that patients want the test; and
  • financial pressure to make use of the machine.

A handful of symptoms accounted for a disproportionate use of CT scans in the ER – impairments of nerve, spinal cord or brain function; flank pain; convulsions; vertigo; headache; abdominal pain; and general weakness. Approximately 1 in 4 CT scans performed in the U.S. is done in an emergency department, the study found.

If CT scans are overused, figuring out how to reduce their use is tricky, noted Dr. Robert Wears, an emergency medicine doctor who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. Such decisions, he said, are made on a case-by-case basis.

“What is acceptable and appropriate use or nonuse of CT imaging is not an entirely objective question that can be neatly resolved by empirical data and formal analysis,” he wrote, “but rather a tangled, socially constructed issue involving competing views of risk, benefit and obligation, and the elusive question of how much certainty we must have.”

The last thing an injured or ill person wants to do is engage in a protracted discussion about the suitability of care – he just wants to stop hurting. Still, when a CT scan is prescribed, Kocher advises patients to ask if it’s truly necessary. Or ask this: If the CT comes out one way, how will the care be different from how it would be if it comes out another way? Here’s where the doctor may hem and haw. The doctor will probably still want to do the scan, and maybe she’s right. But the greater the awareness of the issue, the sooner a reasonable and appropriate standard of care can be determined.

Article first published as Why is Use of CT Scans Soaring in Emergency Rooms? on Technorati.

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