Healthcare Technology Featured Article

July 26, 2012

Medical Imaging Pace is Surprisingly Slowing

Doctors have been roundly criticized for ordering too many sophisticated, expensive tests. But surprisingly, the growth of advanced diagnostic imaging in Medicare patients dipped to single-digit rates starting in 2006, even among those whose scans were paid for by private insurance, according to a study from the August issue of Health Affairs, as reported by Kate Madden Lee, who notes that other studies confirm medical imaging's slowdown.

Whether doctors are indeed ordering fewer tests, and patients getting less unnecessary imaging, was not confirmed in the study, which some say was incomplete. But there’s no getting around it. Imaging is the slowest growing of all physician services these days among privately insured Americans according to the Health Care Cost Institute

"We were interested in understanding whether the slowdown in imaging use others had found persisted in recent years, and whether it carried into the private sector," study author David Lee, PhD, general manager and head of health economics at GE Healthcare, told "And we had other questions, such as what caused the decrease in imaging use, what effect that decrease has on the radiology market, and whether our study has bigger policy implications." explains that Lee and his co-author, Dr. Frank Levy of Harvard Medical School used claims file data and interviews with healthcare professionals, and found that “the growth rate of CT and MRI scans among both Medicare beneficiaries and those insured outside of the Medicare system slowed” to a stunning one percent to three percent per year through 2009, after more than a decade of annual growth rates of approximately six percent, according to Health Affairs.

At its peak, the use of imaging surged from 2000 to 2005, with use of CT in the Medicare system growing at an annual rate of 14.3 percent, according to the story. Growth declined each year after 2005, from 7.1 percent in 2006 to 1.4 percent in 2009, while use of MRI in Medicare went from a 14 percent annual growth rate during the period to an average of 2.6 percent per year between 2006 and 2009, Lee and Levy wrote.

But not everyone agrees the growth of imaging is slip sliding away. Kate Madden Lee writes in another story that not even HMOs “were able to curb growth in advanced diagnostic imaging, according to a new study in the June 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).”

The study noted that medical imaging extends life, lowers mortality rates and is much less invasive than surgery, which was used before MRI and CT came along.

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli

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