Diagnostic Imaging: Beam Me Up Dr. McCoy
We're not quite at the Star Trek level yet with imaging technology, but recent advances are fine-tuning your medical care.
Using Imaging for Routine Screening -- the Pros and Cons continued...
"There are a lot of nonspecific abnormalities," says Hillman.
"For instance, an enormous number of people have nodules in their chests.
But only a fraction of them actually turn out to be cancer." Universal
screening could lead to a lot of unnecessary and risky tests and
Even in apparently healthy people who really do have a disease, screening
may not always help.
"Catching the disease early and stopping it would be great," says
Hillman. "But lots of times, that doesn't happen. You find the disease
earlier, you treat it earlier, but the outcome is the same and the person dies
anyway." Early detection helps many people, of course. But it doesn't
always make a difference. For those who aren't helped, it leads to tests,
treatments, and intense distress much earlier than someone who wasn't
Smarter Use of Imaging for Screening
As for now, no one recommends routine high-tech screening for everyone.
"The American College of Radiology does not endorse whole body screening
of healthy people," says Eversman. "It probably shouldn't be done,
since there's no proof that it saves lives or even improves them."
"I think it's fair to say that at this point, the only cancer screening
that we know to work in reducing the death rate is mammography," Hillman
tells WebMD. "Everything else is undergoing testing or completely
But experts are trying to figure out how to use screening as a tool for
people at higher risk of certain diseases. Lewin also says that as imaging
exams become safer and more accurate, the pros of screening may outweigh the
"As MR screening continues to improve, and as we lower the dose of
radiation with CT, routine screening will make sense for a bigger and bigger
proportion of people," he tells WebMD.
Imaging Moved Into the Operating Room
Soon, imaging tests may not only be used to diagnose disease. They may also
become a key part of some medical procedures. During minimally invasive
surgery, imaging will allow surgeons to see inside the body better, to improve
treatment -- and minimize complications.
"Minimally invasive surgery and new imaging technologies are developing
hand in hand," says Lewin.
"MRI in particular -- but also other technologies, like ultrasound --
may have the ability to monitor a surgery in real time," says Hillman.
"They could potentially detect when all of a tumor was removed, or when a
surgeon was accidentally beginning to harm normal tissue."
Lewin says that using MRI during brain surgery is already helping. "The
studies are still being done," he says. "But I've seen that combining
the surgeon's eyes with MR improves the operation. Because the human eye, even
with a microscope, just can't see what an MR can see."