Do Parents Know the Risks of CT Scans?

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CT scan risks not known among more than half of parents

July 7, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) The more a doctor can learn about a child's injury, the better the doctor is usually able to treat it. But extra tests carry extra risks too. Parents may not always know the risks of tests like CT scans.

A recent study found that less than half of parents were aware of the lifetime cancer risks linked to CT scans.

These scans are often given to understand an injury better, especially if it's a head injury. Sometimes they are necessary, but other times a parent may choose to have doctors skip the scan.

The risks are small and not completely understood. When parents learned about the risks associated with CT scans, about 20 percent of them no longer wanted their child to get a CT scan.

"Ask your child's doctor about the risks of CT scans."

This study, led by Kathy Boutis, MD, of the Division of Emergency Medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, looked at how knowledgeable parents were about the risks of CT scans in children.

CT stands for computerized tomography. These scans take many x-rays of a part of the body from many different angles. Then these individual x-rays are combined together to create a 3-D image.

CT scans are used for various kinds of injuries, especially head injuries, so that doctors can learn more about the injury and how to treat it.  

However, CT scans use radiation and involve risks, including an increased lifetime risk of certain cancers. One long-term study found CT scans linked to an additional one in 10,000 children developing leukemia or brain tumors.

The researchers of this study conducted a survey of 742 parents regarding what they knew about CT scan risks and whether gaining more knowledge about the risks changed their willingness to have their child get a CT scan.

All the parents had children who were taken to a pediatric emergency department with a head injury. About half the children were aged 4 or younger, and 12 percent had already had a past CT scan.

Just under half of the parents (47 percent) said they were aware of the potential for CT scans to increase a child's lifetime risk of developing cancer.

The sources of this information for these parents included a healthcare background, handouts or newspapers, radio or television, the Internet, formal education classes or families and friends.

Yet even among these parents, 63 percent of them underestimated what the current best estimate is of the risk.

Before being told what the CT scan risks were, 90 percent of the parents said they were "willing" or "very willing" to go ahead with having their child undergo a CT scan for the head injury.

After the parents had been told the risks by the researchers, only 70 percent were still willing to have their child undergo a CT scan. Six percent said they would refuse a CT scan.

In addition, 90 percent of the parents said they wanted to be told about the possible increase in lifetime cancer risks posed by CT scans before their child underwent a scan.

"We found that parental willingness to proceed with physician-recommended CT testing decreased by approximately 20 percent after being provided with current risk estimates," the researchers wrote.

"Because almost all parents expressed a preference to be informed of potential risks before proceeding with recommended imaging, we strongly recommend that physicians be well informed of the benefits and potential risks of CT imaging," they wrote.

This study was published July 8 in the journal Pediatrics.

The research was funded by the Pediatric Research Academic Initiative at SickKids Emergency program from the Hospital for Sick Children. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 4, 2013
Last Updated:
July 30, 2013