Number of CT scans have risen 330 percent in 12 years

If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be an emergency room patient, you likely know how ominous the idea of a CT scan can be. No one wants to be inserted into a narrow tube only to have their body pelted with X-rays.

But a study from the Annals of Emergency Medicine by the University of Michigan Health System has shown that the number of patients going through that process has more than trebled in the last twelve years.

In 1996 only 3.2 percent of emergency patients received CT scans, compared to 2009 where 13.9 percent of emergency patients received the procedure.

“This means that by 2007, one in seven ED patients got a CT scan,” Keith Kocher MD, MPH, said in the press release. “It also means that about 25 percent of all the CT scans done in the United States are performed in the ED.”

The study looked at the data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which comprised of 1.29 billion weighted records (in other words, for analysis reason, a record could have a statistical value of more than one) of emergency visits between 1996 and 2007. Of that staggering quantity of health records, 97.1 million had patients who received a CT scan.

Emergency department visitors who received a CT scan in the beginning of the study had a 25 percent chance of being admitted to the hospital. By 2007, this rate had been halved, meaning patients were being sent home more often.  For the twenty most common reasons patients visit the emergency room, the paper reported that CT use went up, with increases among those with abdominal pain, flank pain, chest pain and shortness of breath leading the way.

Unfortunately, the study does not attempt to answer the exact question of “why?” Any number of reasons are in play, including malpractice avoidance, acceptance of the procedure and varying coverage by insurers. 

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