Be aware of, not scared of, radiation exposure, radiologist says

January 5, 2013 | by Shawn Le

Radiation exposure has been high in the public consciousness of late, with abundant articles on airport body scanners, the tsunami-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the possible overuse of cardiac CT scans. The latest salvo comes from a research letter published Dec. 31 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine reporting that one-third of patients who received a CT scan said they didn’t think radiation was used in the diagnostic procedure.

Computer-assisted tomography One-third of patients in a survey reported they did not think that radiation was involved in CT scans.

Obviously, it is.

William Boswell Jr. M.D., understands the reasons behind that misconception. He says that radiologists typically offer to answer questions that patients have about any diagnostic procedure they undergo, whether it be magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography scans, but in his experience, most patients ask only about the results of their scans. And he worries that a factoid about what patients don’t know may be misused by the media to feed overinflated fears of radiation.

“In my opinion, it’s bad medicine to put a sense of fear into a patient’s head when the use of diagnostic CT scans are appropriate to the treatment,” says Boswell, chair of the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at City of Hope. “We have to ask ourselves: What is the real risk? Diagnostic scans are a very necessary part of cancer treatment to assess how the patient is responding.”

CT scans are a series of X-rays of a portion of the body; those images are stitched together to form a 3-D internal image of the area. Radiologists balance physicians' need for detailed resolution against the necessity of minimizing patients' radiation exposure.

Boswell says that radiologists typically offer to answer questions that patients have about any diagnostic procedure they undergo, whether it's magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography scans, but in his experience, most patients ask only about the results of their scans.

“Cancer patients are among the most educated about their disease that I’ve encountered, but no patient will understand everything about their treatment,” Boswell says. “In fact, no physician can be as aware of the latest findings or advances in diagnostic imaging as a radiologist.”

Boswell says radiologists are integral members of a patient care team, “there to help physicians make the best judgment call about treatment.” Radiologists make suggestions about what type of diagnostic procedure the physician may need for patients care, and what type of procedure a patient may be able to handle depending on his or her physical and mental state.

“There is no right or wrong answer to the question about just how much information patients need for every aspect of their cancer care,” he says. “When you provide the most appropriate information, patients understand the necessity and value of diagnostic imaging.”

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