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Ultrasounds on the rise

WT24 Desk

Doctors these days have quite a few high-tech methods for peering inside the human body. But several of those tools are becoming less popular with patients, new research has found, while the use of ultrasounds keeps growing, The Boston Globe reports.  Though the reasons why aren’t completely clear, the Boston University researchers behind the findings believe one might be that consumers are shouldering more of their healthcare bills.

In a recent study, a group from BU’s School of Public Health looked at private insurance claims generated by more than 35 million people from 2007 to 2013. The data showed that, for patients who weren’t currently hospitalized, CT and PET scans have been in decline since 2011, while the use of MRIs peaked in 2012.

Ultrasounds for those patients, meanwhile, have increased steadily since 2010. The data didn’t reveal why ultrasounds have been climbing while other scans are in retreat. As with any big healthcare trend, there are likely to be multiple overlapping causes. But the team has some theories that they plan to keep testing.

One big driver could be cost. Ultrasounds are generally much less expensive than CT scans, PET scans, or MRIs, so patients might opt for an ultrasound if they have an option, said Michal Horný, a graduate student who led the research.

That theory would fit with the big-picture trend in healthcare costs being shifted to consumers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the cost of health insurance deductibles has spiked 67 percent since 2010, compared with a 24 percent increase in premiums and a roughly 10 percent increase in employee pay.

“When patients pay a greater portion of medical care costs out of their own pockets, they are more likely to shop for more-affordable options, or even change their mind about undergoing the imaging procedure,” the study said. Patients might also be avoiding scans that use radiation because of some increased risk of cancers, the researchers said.

“There’s certainly some general evidence that patients are considering these risks themselves more than they used to in the past, and they have access to the Internet to look up these kind of risks,” said James Burgess, a health policy professor who worked on the study.

Patients also could be influenced by the “Choosing Wisely” public education campaign, launched in early 2012 by the American Board of Internal Medicine “to avoid wasteful or unnecessary medical tests, treatments, and procedures,” the study said.

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