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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 procedures.

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 screened.

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 unproven."

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 cons.

"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."

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