Health-care IT: Study questions value of costly imaging technology

November 26, 2008
Brandon Glenn
Brandon Glenn

Though the use of computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging has skyrocketed in the last decade, the benefits of the technology's increased availability are not clear, according to a new study.

Though the use of computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging has skyrocketed in the last decade, the benefits of the technology’s increased availability are not clear, according to a study published in the November/December issue of the journal Health Affairs.

The authors of the study, “Expanded Use of Imaging Technology and the Challenge of Measuring Value,” write that the high costs associated with the technology “raise concerns about whether widespread availability is justified.”

The study’s three authors, two Stanford University professors and a Harvard Medical School lecturer, stop short of claiming that the value associated with expanded use and availability of CT scans and MRIs does not justify the cost. They contend that more data need to be gathered on the effect that the increased availability of the technology has had on patient outcomes.

“Although this kind of (cost-benefit) information has been difficult to develop, there is little question that it is increasingly needed,” the authors write.

Analyzing Medicare claims data, the authors report that the number of MRI procedures per 1,000 beneficiaries increased from “essentially zero” in 1985 to 50 in 1995, and then more than tripled to 173 by 2005. CT procedures also rose dramatically, more than doubling from 1995 to 2005, when they reached 547 per 1,000 beneficiaries, the study says.

Imaging technology carries a “substantial” price tag, with state-of-the-art MRI units costing about $2 million. Still, the high costs may be justified if they bring “sufficiently large benefits,” such as improving health outcomes or reducing the use of more-expensive or invasive diagnostic tests, according to the study.

Pricy technology has drawn increased attention recently as a possible cause of the high costs of health care in the U.S. A recent study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation argues that runaway spending on unproven and ineffective technology is the greatest contributing factor to the skyrocketing cost of American health care.