Patients Unaware of Diagnostic Imaging Radiation Risks: Study

The findings of new research highlights how many patients remain in the dark about the true risks associated with radiation exposure from CT scans, MRIs and other diagnostic imaging tests. 

In a study published last month in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, researchers indicate that only 22% of patients understand what ionizing radiation is and can correctly define it, despite its use in many medical imaging tests.

Researchers from the University of Texas emailed a 30-question survey to nearly 49,000 randomly selected patients who had undergone a diagnostic imaging study at a comprehensive cancer center between November 1, 2013 and January 31, 2014.

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The goal of the study was to measure patients’ knowledge of ionizing radiation in diagnostic imaging and attitudes about radiation. About 5,500, or 11%, completed the survey.

Among the respondents, only 22% knew the definition of ionizing radiation and 35% stated correctly that computerized tomography (CT) scans used ionizing radiation. About 30% stated incorrectly that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used ionizing radiation.

Researchers report that many patients did not understand the risks of exposure to diagnostic doses of ionizing radiation.

Another study published in 2013 had similar results. That research concluded nearly 85% of patients underestimated the amount of radiation CT scans emit. Only five percent were aware the scan may increase their future cancer risk.

Of the more than 3,100 patients who believed that an abdominopelvic CT scan carried risks, 41% believed sterility was a risk, 21% believed heritable mutations were a risk, 21% believed  acute radiation sickness was a risk and four percent believed cataracts was a risk.

CT scans of the abdomen and pelvis don’t carry any of the risks patients believed the scans posed to them.

“Most patients and caregivers do not possess basic knowledge regarding the use of ionizing radiation in oncologic diagnostic imaging,” wrote study authors. “To ensure health literacy and high-quality patient decision making, efforts to educate patients and caregivers should be increased. Such education might begin with information about effects that are not risks of diagnostic imaging.”

While exposure may not cause the risks the patients believed would be an issue, exposure to does carry risks and excessive exposure to radiation may can cause damage to the body’s DNA and cells. The benefits and risks should always be weighed before a scan is conducted, health experts advise.


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