"I think [this] is one of the reasons we have the problem with increased background radiation due to medical imaging," explained Dr. Stephen Amis, chairman of radiology at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "Physicians are trying to augment income in every way possible in this time of decreasing reimbursement. It's not too hard to come up with a reason to image patients while they're seeing you in the office, and that's an ongoing concern."
Another possible factor contributing to the increased use of these medical tests could be physicians' fear of being sued by patients who believe the doctors did not do everything in their power to successfully diagnose the patient's condition.
"Fear of litigation [is] prevalent throughout the medical community, and [physicians] figure if they get imaging [on a patient] it reduces their chances of being sued," Amis said. "Especially in an emergency room setting," where doctors use scans "to ... make absolutely certain someone doesn't have appendicitis before they throw them back on the street."
Lichtenfeld agreed. "More scans are being used now because it's almost routine to the point where my colleague in an emergency room tells me when a patient comes in complaining of something, instead of doing the standard physical to diagnose them they immediately send them for a CT scan," he said.
Experts noted that another contributing factor is a lack of standardized guidelines that outline the appropriate circumstances under which to use certain screening tests.
"We need more guidelines on whether a radiologist needs to do scan or not, and we need to do a better job teaching medical students about to go into primary care practices about the appropriate use of these technologies and the long-term risks of overuse of these screening tools," Lichtenfeld explained.
However, experts also pointed out that health care professionals are not the only ones to blame for the overuse of these tests.
"What patients shouldn't do is self-refer themselves for an imaging test," Kase said.
Amis explained that more and more patients are coming into their doctor's office and demanding screening tests that are perhaps unnecessary or premature.
Still, most experts contend that imaging will always do more good than harm.
"Imaging is a critical tool in diagnosing brain disorders," said Dr. Nestor Gonzalez, assistant professor of Neurosurgery and Interventional Neuroradiology at UCLA. "The advanced imaging that we are able to do today… allows us to discover [abnormalities] that otherwise would not be found before devastating consequences. These images are also absolutely critical in performing less invasive surgical techniques, and when used in appropriate manner they are unquestionable tools that save lives."
For this reason, experts urge that those who are concerned about radiation exposure from medical imaging not to avoid these scans if they are prescribed by a doctor.
"It's important for people not to be afraid of getting radiation exposure for a medical condition that they're physician thinks they need," Kase said. "I think we can state pretty certainly that for the most part, the benefit the patient will get from the exam will be greater than any harm that the radiation might deliver -- as long as the test has been prescribed by a physician and there's a clear reason for doing the test."