Value of CTs tends to outweigh risk, but ask questions

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Recent headlines and news stories citing national studies have claimed that repeated and sustained radiation exposure during unnecessary computerized tomography -- also known as CT -- scans increases the risk for cancer.

While it is true that exposure to radiation can be unhealthy in any dose, there are many instances in which the benefits of a CT scan as a diagnostic tool outweigh other risks -- especially when radiation doses are strictly monitored.

It's helpful to know what a CT really is. It's basically a rapidly rotating X-ray camera that captures many images at a time. Those images are then reconstructed by a powerful computer into 3-D images that can be viewed in a variety of ways. For example, as a radiologist I can choose not to view the tissue and just look at the bones. I can also use the computer to zoom through the images in a three-dimensional way.

A CT scan is a powerful, necessary diagnostic tool for physicians. It helps to accurately diagnose and treat complex diseases such as cancer, heart disease and many other serious medical conditions. Because of this hospitals work hard to ensure CT scans are as safe as possible.

One strategy is to make sure every scan is completely necessary and given at the lowest radiation level possible to still be able to get the necessary images.

Patient radiation doses are strictly monitored and tracked. At Inland Imaging we have instructions -- or protocols -- for the CT machine that decrease the average radiation dose per study by as much as 30 percent.

It's also important to make sure the machine is working properly. Every year the state Department of Health sends a physicist to measure the X-rays produced by our machine.

We also bring in an independent physicist to carefully calibrate the machine, making sure it uses the lowest dose of radiation needed to capture images.

A clinical engineering specialist monitors the machine on an ongoing basis and the machine itself is programmed to alert the technologists if it detects the slightest potential problem.

The bottom line? Ask your doctor if a CT scan really is the best way to get the results they need.

And ask your technologist or radiologist what they are doing to limit your exposure to radiation.

Dr. Brian Rich is a radiologist with Inland Imaging and is the medical director for imaging at Walla Walla General Hospital.

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