Journal des Alternatives

Public being misled by marketing of medical scans: New research reveals

30 March 2009

Authors of a new study warn that private clinics selling high-tech services to screen healthy people for disease could be harming Canadians and placing an undue burden on the public health system.

The study, entitled What’s in a Scan? was published today by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca). The results of the study found that there are prevalent misconceptions about the safety and regulation of CT and PET screening technologies.

“People are sold on the notion that early detection of potential diseases will always be a positive thing. Unfortunately, this is not the reality,” says Wendy Armstrong, an Edmonton-based health policy analyst affiliated with the Alberta Consumers’ Association and one of the study’s authors. The researchers interviewed over 20 experts, analyzed the media reporting and marketing of screening tests using high tech imaging technologies, and conducted a nation-wide public opinion survey of 400 Canadians on the issue to examine how well Canadian consumers are informed about the benefits and risks associated with such screening. The CCPA also developed a Consumer’s Guide to Health Screening following the completion of the study.

The use of the newest screening technologies such as CT (computed tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans in Canada is on the rise. “It’s appropriate for health care professionals to use CT-scanners to diagnose and treat cardiac or cancer patients,” said Alan Cassels, the lead investigator of the study and a health policy researcher at the University of Victoria. “But selling heart, lung or full body scans to individuals who have no apparent symptoms or are otherwise healthy is highly controversial, almost unregulated and not condoned by professional associations of radiologists.”

“What is most striking is that Canadians largely view these “preventative” scans as safe and highly accurate, when in fact, they are often neither,” adds Cassels. “Screening healthy people for disease exposes them to risks from excessive radiation, and can create a flood of false positive findings and unnecessary medical tests which ultimately increases the workload on the public system.”

While the study authors acknowledge that these imaging devices have an important role in medical diagnostics, they found that consumers are not aware of the risks associated with technologies when they are promoted to seek out signs of early disease in healthy people.

“Ultimately while we wait for the federal government and medical professionals to put needed health protections in place, consumers need to be educated about screening’s potential risks and benefits. Ultimately consumers need to be able to ask themselves and their doctors: ‘Do I really need this new screening test?’” explains Cassels.

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