Among six large integrated health care systems between 1996 and 2010 there was a substantial increase in the use of advanced diagnostic imaging, including approximately a tripling of the use of computed tomography and nearly a quadrupling of the use of magnetic resonance imaging, as well as a substantial increase in estimated radiation exposure, according to a study in the June 13 issue of JAMA.
"The use of diagnostic imaging in the Medicare population has increased significantly over the last 2 decades, particularly using expensive new technologies such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and nuclear medicine positron emission tomography (PET). The development and improvement in these advanced diagnostic imaging technologies is widely credited with leading to earlier and more accurate diagnoses of disease using noninvasive techniques," according to background information in the article. The authors note that computed tomography and nuclear medicine examinations deliver much higher doses of ionizing radiation than conventional radiographs, and evidence has linked exposure to radiation levels in this range with the development of radiation-induced cancers.
"Most studies that have evaluated patterns of diagnostic imaging have assessed insurance claims for fee-for-service insured populations where financial incentives encourage imaging. No large, multisite studies have assessed imaging trends in integrated health care delivery systems that are clinically and fiscally accountable for the outcomes and health status of the population served. Understanding imaging utilization and associated radiation exposure in these settings could help us determine how much of the increase in imaging may be independent of direct financial incentives," the researchers write.
Rebecca Smith-Bindman, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues conducted a study to estimate trends in imaging utilization and associated radiation exposure among members of integrated health care systems. The study consisted of an analysis of electronic records of members of 6 large integrated health systems from different regions of the United States. Review of medical records allowed estimation of radiation exposure from selected tests. Between 1 million and 2 million member-patients were included each year from 1996 to 2010. Enrollees underwent a total of 30.9 million imaging examinations during the study period, reflecting an average of 1.18 tests per person per year, of which 35 percent involved advanced diagnostic imaging (i.e., CT, MRI, nuclear medicine, and ultrasound).
The researchers found that use of radiography and angiography/fluoroscopy rates were relatively stable over time: radiography increased 1.2 percent per year, and angiography/fluoroscopy decreased 1.3 percent per year. "In contrast, the utilization of advanced diagnostic imaging changed markedly. Computed tomography examinations tripled (52/1000 enrollees in 1996 to 149/1000 in 2010, 7.8 percent annual growth); MRIs quadrupled (17/1000 to 65/1000,10 percent annual growth); ultrasounds approximately doubled over the same period (134/1000 to 230/1000, 3.9 percent annual growth). Nuclear medicine rates decreased (32/1000 to 21/1000, 3 percent annual decline), although after 2004, PET imaging rates increased from 0.24 per 1,000 enrollees to 3.6 per 1,000 enrollees, 57 percent annual growth."