Use of CT scans in the emergency department (ED) quadrupled over recent decades, with more than 1 in 8 patients getting the tests in 2007, says a Reuters Health article based on a study in Annals of Emergency Medicine. Scans became more common for ED patients with all 20 of the most common complaints, and increased the fastest for stomach, side, and chest pains.
The research team used a representative sample of about 370,000 trips to EDs across the United States between 1996 and 2007. For each visit, they had information on patients' primary complaint, whether or not they were given a CT scan in the ED, and if they were ultimately admitted to the hospital for further treatment or observation.
In 1996, just over 3% of all trips to the ED included a CT scan. By 2007, almost 14% of ED visits resulted in a CT scan, which is about a quarter of the 72 million CT scans done in the country.
Over the course of the study, fewer patients were admitted to the hospital after getting a CT scan. That could mean that the tests helped physicians rule out serious conditions and avoid keeping patients in the hospital, says the article, but the study can't prove that the 2 events are definitely linked.
In addition to the high costs of imaging services, physicians and patients should both keep in mind that the scans aren't harmless, researchers told Reuters. Radiation from scans has been linked to slightly increased cancer risks many years down the line. In addition, unnecessary scans could lead to incidental findings that probably wouldn't have caused a patient any problems, but prompt more health care visits and more scans for follow-up.