Calif. Clinic Sells CT Scan as 'Gift of Health'

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With the holidays just around the corner, a Beverly Hills clinic is selling "the gift of health": a computed tomography, or CT, scan they believe could help lead to early identification of heart or cancer problems.

Beyond valet parking and a spa-like atmosphere complete with bamboo floors and natural light, the gift's $1,200 price tag includes a report detailing any abnormal findings from the full-body scan -- from lumps and nodules to blood vessel irregularities.

"Screening is extremely important, and we think everyone should do it," said Dr. Ari Gabayan of the Beverly Hills Cancer Center, a "boutique" operation associated with Optima Diagnostic Imaging. "The whole idea is to catch things early before they become a problem."

But some experts say the risks of overscreening outweigh the benefits.

"This is a terrific gift to the financial health of the clinic," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "If getting screening CT scans or MRIs was really thought to be useful and cost effective, then it would be recommended by medical communities."

A CT scan is a useful diagnostic tool when a patient has a certain set of symptoms and risk factors, said Schaffner.

"But going out and doing a lot of testing when someone is not symptomatic -- other than the screening tests recommended by professional societies such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force -- cannot be recommended as a gift of health."

Some hospitals are using CT scans to screen for lung cancer in heavy smokers. But there is mounting evidence that overscreening in the general population can lead to anxiety-provoking false positives (a diagnosis of cancer when there is none) and even unnecessary surgery.

"The default is to assume that screening must be good; catching something early must be good," said James Raftery of the University of Southampton, U.K., author of a study on breast cancer screening published Thursday in BMJ. "But if a woman has an unnecessary mastectomy or chemotherapy or radiation, that's a tragedy."

But Gabayan said he and his team knew how to handle suspicious findings without rushing into surgery.

"There's always the risk of false positives," he said. "But we know what to look for. We know what's suspicious on the scans -- what we should go after, not go after, and what should be monitored."

The scan covers all the major organs and the chest, abdomen and pelvis. A magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scan of the brain costs extra.

Schaffner said there were better ways to give the gift of health this holiday season.

"Give someone a low-calorie diet cookbook, or some gym equipment or a personal trainer for a period of time -- particularly for someone who has expressed an interest in these things," he said.

A healthy diet and active lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

And with flu season heating up as the weather cools down, think of giving your family the flu shot.

"It would make Santa smile, because he goes into a lot of homes," said Schaffner. "It's a good deal for everyone."