Study finds overuse of CT scans in children

Children complaining of headaches are too often getting a CT scan when they don't need one, a new study concludes, potentially boosting their risk of getting cancer because of all the extra, and arguably unnecessary, radiation. This is happening, the researchers note, despite medical guidelines that point to viable alternatives.

The study also falls into a larger movement hitting medical imaging. FDA officials want to limit undue exposure and have urged device companies to design imaging equipment that includes both instructions and protocols to account for pediatric scans.

What the researchers found: More than 25% of children treated for a headache both in and outside of the emergency room received a CT scan to rule out things such as brain tumors or other neurological problems, based on parental concern, even though such a risk is minute. Children treated in the emergency room were more than four times as likely to face a CT scan versus children treated elsewhere. But pediatric CT scans for headaches were also high outside of the emergency room, the study concludes.

Researchers looked at treatment involving 15,836 children who had more than two headache-related medical claims. All were ages 3 to 12. And the data falls into a larger statistic--clinicians performed 1.7 million pediatric CT scans in the emergency room in 2008, covering nearly 6% of all pediatric emergency room visits for that calendar year, they conclude.

The point of concern here is that too much CT scanning can boost the risk of brain tumors. And alternative protocols are already in place on which doctors should rely. The American Academy of Neurology, for example, recommends MRIs instead of CTs in patients with headaches. And the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Colleges of Radiology endorse this approach.

"It's possible that physicians underestimate the risks associated with CT scans," study co-author Dr. Paul Young explained in a statement. He's professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine and was one of the researchers chosen by the American Academy of Pediatrics to conduct the research. Authors either employed or chosen by HealthCore, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Neurology and WellPoint took part in the study, which is published in the July issue of Pediatrics.

- read the release
- here's the journal abstract