CT scans and radiation risk

December 1, 2007  |  General

I’ve written before about the radiation risk of x-ray studies. Most of this risk is in the form of increased lifetime cancer risk. This is a particular concern for children because lifetime risk is cumulative, and children have much more of their life before them. Computed tomographic scans, or CT scans, use several hundred times the amount of radiation of ordinary x-rays.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated up to a third of all CT scans ordered in children are not really needed. Why all the unnecessary scans? One reason is poor communication between doctors when, for example, a child is transferred from one hospital to another. Another reason is “defensive medicine,” situations in which doctors order a scan because they fear missing something which, although highly unlikely, could get them sued.

The bottom line for parents? Ask your child’s doctor how crucial the CT scan is for your child’s care. From the article: “From an individual standpoint, when a CT scan is justified by medical need, the associated risk is small relative to the diagnostic information obtained.” The key is to make sure there is a good medical indication.

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