6 Questions to Ask Before Getting a Medical Scan

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Doctor and patient

The saying “seeing is believing” is often true in the doctor’s office, thanks to medical imaging technology. While the number of medical scans has leveled off in recent years, between 1996 and 2010, the number of CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans grew significantly each year. There’s no argument that medical imaging technology is remarkable and has the ability to diagnose life-threatening illnesses. 

Despite their power, medical scans are expensive and not entirely harmless. If your doctor orders medical imaging, be prepared with these questions:

1. Why do I need this imaging test? 

It’s important to understand what your doctor is considering in ordering a medical scan. Is she trying to confirm or rule out a potential diagnosis? What is the follow-up process after the imaging?

2. Will the results of this scan change my treatment? 

If not, ask what will happen if you decline the requested imaging. If nothing much is gained from having an MRI, for instance, other than verification of a diagnosis, you could possibly skip it and continue on to treatment. Another potential issue is your scan result leading to unnecessary follow-up testing and medical procedures, which carry their own risks. For example, scans can show abnormalities that vary from person to person. The finding may prompt your doctor to request a biopsy or other surgery, when leaving it alone, in the long run, is a viable option.

3. Is there a good alternative that is safer, such as ultrasound? 

Before you schedule medical imaging, ask your provider how the benefits of the scan outweigh the risks of having (or not having) the scan. or using a different imaging technique. CT, MRI, PET (positron emission tomography), and PET/CT are four scans doctors use today:

  • CT scans use X-rays to provide a highly detailed image of a body area. CT scans expose you to radiation, which is a risk factor for cancer. Although you are exposed to radiation every time you receive a CT scan—200 times more than you get with a single chest X-ray, for instance—it’s difficult to show a direct link between a CT scan and cancer because many things contribute to cancer, including both genetic and environmental factors. Be especially careful about having a CT scan for potential concussion in children—the results are often normal. A head CT is more helpful to diagnose a skull fracture or bleeding in the brain.

  • MRI scans help diagnose conditions from heart attacks to tumors and joint problems. MRIs provide a cross-sectional view of the scanned area. MRIs do not emit radiation; however, they are often ordered with a contrast dye to provide a better look. The dye can lead to problems in some people.

  • PET scans are usually ordered to diagnose cancer, heart troubles, or to see how well a cancer treatment is working. PET scans involve a radioactive tracer material that you inhale, swallow, or take by injection in a vein. PET scans are very sensitive and detect very early signs of disease.

  • PET/CT scans also are critical in cancer diagnosis and monitoring. These combination scans show signs of disease with the tracer and show the structure of the area with CT. 

For some conditions, a traditional X-ray or ultrasound may be a safer alternative than a medical scan. Ultrasound uses sound waves, not X-rays, to look at the structure and movement of an organ or tissue, such as the heart.  

4. If I need more medical scans in the future, how can we decrease my overall exposure to radiation? 

We’re exposed to radiation in our daily lives from radon in our homes and from space. For the average person, one CT scan is equivalent to the radiation received in about three years of natural exposure from the environment. One CT scan doesn’t raise your lifetime risk of cancer. However, repeated CT scans lead to a moderate increase in lifetime cancer risk. 

If you’ll require more than one scan, ask about your lifetime exposure. Also, ask the radiologist in charge of your scan if the imaging facility is using the lowest effective dose of radiation. This means they are using the smallest amount of radiation to image the particular body area being evaluated.

5. Where will I have the imaging test? 

Ask if the imaging facility is accredited or look it up at http://www.acr.org/quality-safety/accreditation/accredited-facility-search. Having a scan at an accredited facility is important because it means the staff has met high education and training standards, the people operating the equipment are certified, and the equipment is regularly checked to make sure it’s working as expected. 

6. How much will the scan cost? 

Your doctor likely won’t have this information, but your insurance company will. And you can shop around, making sure you get the best price at an accredited facility. In an effort to lower costs, some insurance plans contract for the more expensive diagnostic scanning procedures and may require you to go to a specific imaging facility. Hospitals often charge the most for medical imaging. If you’re in the hospital, ask if you can wait to seek out a less costly option at a later date.

Ask before you leap!

It’s difficult to ask questions about imaging during a true medical emergency. But in a non-emergency situation, asking your doctor thoughtful questions about an upcoming scan is expected. This is especially true when the scan is for a child because children are more sensitive than adults to radiation. If your doctor doesn’t answer your questions, consider seeing another doctor. You are your own best advocate for effective, but safe medical care.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Nov 20
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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