CT exam use in ERs rises six-fold

The use of CT exams in emergency departments has increased nearly six-fold over a 13-year period and has yet to slow down, according to a new study published in Radiology and presented at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting in Chicago this week.

Between 1995 and 2007, CT exams jumped from 2.7 million to 16.2 million, a 16 percent increase in usage per year. If the trend continues, one in five ER visits will involve a CT exam by 2011, notes the study's authors.

Lead author Dr. David Larson, director of quality improvement in the department of radiology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, is not surprised by the upsurge, as he called CT a "wonderful technique that is widely available." However, he notes that factors such as cost, radiation, healthcare reform and the weakened economy may curb further growth.

What's more, the study found CT use for exams with a higher radiation dose increased faster than exams with a lower radiation dose, and that the radiation dosage of CT in ER visits may be growing faster than overall CT use. This underscores mounting concerns about exposure to high-dose ionizing radiation. According to the study, CT exams are the nation's leading source of medical-related exposure to ionizing radiation, reports HealthDay.

"Our emphasis now should be on carefully evaluating the use of CT in specific situations and making sure it is used appropriately," Larson said.

Dr. Robert Zimmerman, an executive vice chair of radiology at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, agrees that while CT is a valuable medical tool, it must be used with caution. "[W]e need to control their utilization, and reduce the amount of radiation associated with these scanning exams to make sure they're safe and people have confidence they are safe," he told HealthDay.

For more:
- read the Radiology abstract
- here's the RSNA press release
- read the HealthDay article
- read the NPR article