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Body Scan Centers Sprout in Upscale Burgs

But questions remain about their worth

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

WEDNESDAY, July 30, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Body scan centers, which offer peace of mind to seemingly healthy people, are setting up shop in the nation's tonier neighborhoods.

And these centers are more likely to draw citizens who are white, rich and highly educated, says new research from Stanford University.

"It's really the educated wealthy of our population who are being targeted," says study co-author Judy Illes, a senior researcher at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. "Many of these [kinds of] services have historically been introduced to a privileged sector of society."

But while body scan technology is proliferating at a rapid clip, many questions still remain about whether people need to be scanned for signs of illness when they don't show any symptoms, Illes adds.

"We really believe that one has to be aware of the limitations of these services as we know them today," she says.

The entrepreneurs behind the body scan boom have very different opinions. Over the past few years, they've built a thriving industry out of convincing people that disease may be silently lurking in their bodies.

Typically, patients can get CT scans of their full bodies or specific parts, such as the heart or lungs. The cost can run from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,500, and some centers suggest patients get the scans on a regular basis. Insurance companies are skeptical of the scans and may not cover them.

Critics have charged that the scans could produce frightening "false positives" -- misleading signs of illness -- or lead to unnecessary medical care. The American College of Radiology recommends against full-body scans unless a patient actually has symptoms of illness.

Dr. Craig Bittner is chief executive officer and medical director of AmeriScan, which operates seven body scan centers across the country. He says the scans detect significant medical problems in about 10 percent of patients.

"To say this is unwarranted, that's bizarre," Bittner says. "[Doctors] screen 1,000 women with mammography before we find a breast cancer. In one in 10 cases, we'll find a significant or life-threatening problem."

Bittner predicts Americans will soon realize body scans should be a normal part of preventive care. "Over 2 million Americans will die each year from cancer, heart disease, strokes and aneurysms. Most take many years to develop symptoms, meaning that most people who have the diseases are walking around and feeling perfectly fine."

Bittner says he isn't surprised by the new findings about the locations of the scan centers. "You find them in areas where people are more sophisticated and educated," he says. Consumers "have to understand the value proposition of saying, 'I feel fine, but I realize that people have disease and feel perfectly normal.'"

The Stanford researchers used the Internet to track down 88 body scan centers. More than a third were in California. Then they examined the scans offered by the centers and analyzed the economic makeup of the neighborhoods around them.

"This is the first rigorous study to create a map of where these centers are, what they offer and to critically evaluate the state of the art," Illes says.

The researchers report their findings in the August issue of Radiology.

The median household income in the areas near the centers ranged between $36,800 and $43,800, compared to a national median of $30,000. The regions were 78 percent to 87 percent white, compared to a national average of 74 percent.

More than half of the centers offered full body scans, while scans of the heart and lungs were the most common specialized offerings.

Illes says the next step for the researchers is to understand why a growing number of Americans are turning to body scan centers. Meanwhile, the industry needs to develop guidelines, especially considering that no studies have proven that full body scans are a good idea in people who aren't outwardly ill, she says.

Bittner points out that research has supported the worth of scanning individual parts of the body, although researchers haven't examined full body scans.

And what about industry guidelines?

He says they're a good idea. "Groups have come in and offered this that don't have a lot of physician involvement and may not have delivered the same quality of radiology service [as we have]," he says. "Setting some standards and guidelines would help us."

More information

The Aetna insurance company is skeptical of full body scans. Learn why by clicking here. Get the other side of the story from AmeriScan, a body scan company.

SOURCES: Judy Illes, Ph.D., senior research scholar, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and Department of Radiology, Palo Alto, Calif.; Craig Bittner, M.D., cardiovascular radiologist, chief executive officer and medical director, AmeriScan, Scottsdale, Ariz.; August 2003 Radiology
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