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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.
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Smarter Use of Imaging for Screening continued...

"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."

Eversman says that CT scans are starting to be used to create computer-generated models of the heart for use during surgery. "During the operation, the 3D model is shown on a screen, and it moves and rotates to show where the surgeon currently is in the heart," he tells WebMD. "It's a great innovation."

Experts say that imaging will become even more detailed and focused in the future.

"In the next 20 years, imaging technology is going to focus on the molecular and cellular levels," says Hillman. "Instead of only seeing the gross anatomy like we do now, we're going to be looking at metabolism and physiology." He says that PET scanning is the first step in this direction.

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