Patient Care

Sharp Rise in Imaging Test Rates has Slowed


A new study tracking the growth of advanced diagnostic imaging techniques found that the rate of growth for such tests is slowing dramatically, even as the total number of tests performed continues to grow.1 Starting in 2007, the rate of growth dropped sharply to about 1% to 3% from more than 6% per year during the previous decade.

Frank Levy, PhD, professor of urban economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and one of the study’s authors, suggests that the previous growth of the technology could have been partly attributable to such nonmedical factors as profitability for hospitals and fear of malpractice by physicians. The slowdown, Dr. Levy says, also might reflect increased pushback from insurers, recognition of the cost and waste issues, and growing concerns about radiation exposure.

“There are many medical reasons for using these procedures—and many nonmedical reasons,” Dr. Levy says. “To use healthcare resources more efficiently, you should make sure your reason for ordering these tests is medical.”

SHM is working on a short list of sometimes unnecessary but commonly performed medical procedures, which it plans to submit to the American Board of Internal Medicine’s Choosing Wisely campaign this fall. One of the tests being considered for this list is serial chest X-rays for hospitalized patients outside of the ICU who are clinically stable, says Wendy Nickel, associate vice president of SHM’s Center for Hospital Innovation and Improvement. Unnecessary imaging tests are both a safety and a waste issue, she adds.

In related news, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that 95.9% of patients 65 and older who have Stage IV cancer received at least one high-cost advanced imaging procedure (e.g. PET or nuclear medicine), with their utilization rates rising more rapidly than for earlier stages of disease.2 Such tests can lead to appropriate palliative measures but also can “distract patients from focusing on achievable end-of-life goals,” explain researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.


  1. Lee D, Levy F. The sharp slowdown in growth of medical imaging: an early analysis suggests combination of policies was the cause. Health Affairs website. Available at: Accessed Aug. 29, 2012.
  2. Hu YY, Kwok AC, Jiang W, et al. High-cost imaging in elderly patients with Stage IV cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012;104(15):1165-1173.

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