Science-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.
The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.