This week our contributing writer Doctor Gifford-Jones talks about what you need to consider before agreeing to a full body scan.
How often do you wonder if that nagging pain is due to cancer? Or an impending heart attack? But suppose you’re feeling fine, could there be a life-threatening disease present that hasn’t been diagnosed? Some clinics now advertise it’s possible to eliminate all these fears by a single “full body scan?” So what should you know about this 3-D peek at your insides?
It’s been recently announced that the world’s largest MRI body-scan screening chain, Wellbeing Inc, will be established in Toronto. Wealthy investors in Canada and the U.S have anted up 300 million dollars to develop 121 body scanning centers around the world. Many of these digitized images will be interpreted by radiologists in Toronto whether they’re done on patients in Rome, Paris or Texas.
No one debates that computerized tomography (CT) scanning saves lives. It can detect abdominal aneurysms before they rupture. Others lives are saved when CT scanning detects deadly cancers that haven’t as yet spread to other organs. Or life-threatening calcium in coronary arteries.
So faced with these positives wouldn’t it be prudent for all us to have a full body scan? After all patients might say, “What have you go to lose?” Unfortunately, there are always some “buts” when considering a detailed look at our insides.
Today there are clinics now offering this procedure in spas, resorts and shopping malls. This in itself should make one a trifle suspicious. The advertising angle goes right to the heart of the matter. One Hawaiian resort markets it as a “peace of mind” service.
But a report from The Mayo Clinic stresses that having a full body scan takes more thought than deciding on a beauty treatment. That some of these clinics have substandard equipment which provide poorly detailed images and that patients are left with a false sense of security. And thinking themselves 100 percent perfect they may forgo their regular medical examinations.
Another worry is radiation because today so many diagnostic procedures depend on X-rays. Medical consumers fail to realize that radiation is like an elephant, it never forgets the amount it’s been given over a lifetime. It’s these cumulative effects that worry the U.S Food and Drug Administration. They’re concerned that this run-away growth in full body scanning is exposing people to risky levels of radiation.
For years I’ve also warned readers about the dangers of exposing themselves to needless radiation. All too often I hear patients say, ‘but can’t you do an X-ray to diagnose the problem‘. The obvious diagnosis may be just a sprained ankle. But because of the patient’s insistence or anxiety they are exposed to more radiation. And unfortunately the reason an X-ray is all too often ordered is simply for medical-legal reasons.
The other downside is that CT scans are not perfect. Nor are the radiologists that read them. We also know that in healthy people about 80 percent of abnormalities are of no importance. They are either nodules, small benign growths or scarring from previous infections.
Moreover, under the best of conditions this procedure may pick up abnormalities that result in radiologists scratching their heads. Like mammograms, they see shadows that may or may not be serious. This may involve further tests and ongoing worry.
So what should patients do? Realize that in some instances your doctor may find this an invaluable tool to diagnose a difficult problem. But also realize it’s been aptly said that, “too much of a good thing is worse than none at all”. And so in some cases getting a full look at our insides will create more troubles than it solves. At the moment full-body CT scanning has not been thoroughly studied to determine if it will be a useful screening procedure. Time will tell whether the pros outweigh the cons.
Remember too that even if full-body scans are eventually shown to be valuable it’s not a total substitute for other diagnostic tests. Women still need the Pap smear to diagnose cervical cancer. Men require the PSA test and for both sexes colonoscopy is still the gold standard for detecting pre-malignant polyps of the large bowel. Nor will CT scans replace the need for blood tests to diagnose diabetes and high levels of cholesterol.