Diagnostic Imaging: Can There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Woman in a CT scannerWith precision and dead-on accuracy, beams of radiation can confirm the presence or absence of disease or injury, as well as control and even shrink cells. Radiation therapy reaches nearly all areas of medicine, including cancer, transplant, neurology, orthopedics and heart and vascular care.


Each year, 70 million computed tomography (CT) scans are performed in the U.S., resulting in more accurate diagnostic assessment of patient health, which in turn leads to more appropriate treatment and better health outcomes.


When used effectively, radiation can help save patients' lives. Because radiation kills cells - even healthy cells - overexposure can be harmful.


"Despite these risks, the benefits of CT examinations far outweigh the radiation risks in the vast majority of cases," says Jeffrey Kanne, MD, Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Quality and Safety.


UW Health's Department of Radiology is committed to providing high-quality diagnostic imaging while maintaining the highest standards of patient safety.


"To ensure patients are not exposed to radiation unnecessarily, the UW Department of Radiology and Department of Medical Physics have designed CT scan protocols to provide images of the highest quality while delivering the lowest possible radiation dose to the patient, taking advantage of current image enhancement technologies and radiation dose reduction techniques," says Dr. Kanne.


According to an FDA investigation, hundreds of stroke patients at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles were accidentally exposed to eight times the normal radiation dose over an 18-month period. The radiation poisoning occurred when the CT scan was reset to a default setting. This went undetected until a patient reported patchy hair loss in August 2009.


The risk of this happening at UW Health is minimal. UW Health has robust safety measures in place.


Dr. Kanne explains, "For each CT scan performed, a radiation dose report accompanies the diagnostic images, allowing our faculty member to monitor CT radiation doses in real time. This minimizes the risk of high-dose scans going undetected."


Exposure to radiation can be dangerous for anyone.


"Children are particularly sensitive to the effects of ionizing radiation," says Dr. Kanne.


UW Health practices the ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) principle. UW Health has progressed even beyond these guidelines in an extensive effort to both improve image quality and reduce patient dose for pediatric patients.


"MRI and ultrasound are frequently used as alternatives to CT when appropriate," he says.


The UW Department of Radiology practices ongoing quality improvement, and radiation dose monitoring and reduction continue to be a core quality practice.


"We meet or surpass standards issued by the American College of Radiology with respect to image acquisition and reporting," Dr. Kanne says. "We remain committed to the needs of our referring physicians as well as to the needs and safety of our patients."


UW radiologists are available for consultation if there remains any ambiguity as to whether or not a CT scan should be performed. For further information or to find answers to your questions, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the UW Health faculty at the numbers below:

  • Abdominal imaging: (608) 265-7216
  • Breast imaging: (608) 262-7133
  • Cardiothoracic imaging: (608) 265-7250
  • Cardiovascular imaging: (608) 263-1229
  • Diagnostic radiology: (608) 263-9729
  • Interventional radiology: (608) 263-8326
  • Musculoskeletal imaging: (608) 263-6461
  • Neuroradiology: (608) 263-8623
  • Nuclear medicine: (608) 263-9308
  • Pediatric imaging: (608) 263-0670
  • Vascular interventional radiology: (608) 263-8326