Imaging Identified as Most Wasteful Medical Test

By Pat Anson, Editor

Should you get an MRI for your headache?

What about a CT scan for low back pain?

Or a bone-density scan for someone under the age of 65?

In most cases, the answer to all of those questions is no, according to the Choosing Wisely campaign of the ABIM Foundation, which seeks to reduce the use of hundreds of unnecessary and costly medical tests. Experts say an MRI or CT scan of the lower back can cost over $1,200 and does nothing to relieve your back pain.

Since Choosing Wisely was launched in 2012, over 370 wasteful procedures have been identified by over 70 medical societies, such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Neurological Surgeons. Each organization was asked to identify an initial list of five medical services that may be unnecessary. Many societies went far beyond that, returning with two or even three lists.

A neurologist at the University of Michigan says the list of recommendations from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) only scratches the surface. Brian Callaghan, MD, has identified 74 tests and procedures related to neurology that are often unnecessary. Many involve the use of imaging.

“The two biggest areas that might be done more than they should are imaging for low back pain and imaging for headaches,” Callaghan said. “It’s a big problem and it costs a lot of money – we’re talking a billion dollars a year on just headache imaging.”

According to a recent study at the University of Michigan, one in eight visits to a doctor for a headache or migraine end up with the patient going for a brain scan. Often a doctor will order a CT or MRI scan to ease a patient’s fear that they may have a brain tumor or some other serious issue causing their pain. Physicians could also order a scan to protect themselves legally in case of a future lawsuit.

In most cases, however, the brain scan will be useless. Previous research found that only 1 to 3 percent of brain scans of patients with repeated headaches identify a cancerous growth or aneurysm that's causing the problem. Many of the issues that a scan might identify don’t pose a serious threat or may not require treatment right away. There is also the risk of a false positive that could generate unnecessary fear and alarm.

“These are all areas where lots of physicians agree that you’re more likely to get harmed by doing the procedures,” said Callaghan, whose study was recently published in the journal Neurology.

Callaghan isn’t encouraging you to say no if your doctor wants to image your brain or lower back, but he hopes his research will inspire a thoughtful discussion between doctors and patients about the purpose of the test and its value

“Ordering an MRI for a headache is very quick, and it actually takes longer to describe to the patient why that’s not the best route,” Callaghan said. “These guidelines are meant for physicians and patients both, to trigger a conversation.”

Besides imaging, another treatment that is widely questioned is the use of opioid pain medication to treat headaches and migraine. The Choosing Wisely campaign recommends that opioids only be used as a last resort for severe headaches, including migraine. Overuse of any pain reliever – even over-the-counter medications -- are known to make headaches worse.