Harvard Health Letter

All the pretty pictures

CT scans can speed a diagnosis and make it more accurate, but there's also cost and radiation to worry about.

The economy is in a downturn, but these are boom times for medical imaging. Old-fashioned film x-rays have their place. Doctors still x-ray bones to see if they are broken and order chest x-rays to diagnose pneumonia. But now radiologists — doctors that specialize in making diagnoses from medical imaging — have plenty of other ways to peek inside the human body to get a picture of what's going on. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces brilliant images of the brain, spine, and soft tissues around joints. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are emerging as a way to detect cancer and brain abnormalities. The number of computed tomography (CT) scans done each year in the United States has almost doubled since the late 1990s, so there are now some 60 million CT scans done each year.

All this imaging has put the art of diagnosis on a more objective footing and increased its speed and accuracy. It may also occasionally save money. Research at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital has shown, for example, that CT scans of the coronary arteries of people who come to the emergency department with chest pain may — along with other tests — help in ruling out coronary artery disease as the cause of the pain. Patients can then be sent home, avoiding an expensive hospital admission for observation.

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