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University of Alberta Study Addresses Overuse of Lumbar Spine MRIs



In today’s day and age, the overuse of medical procedures, equipment, and services has become an increasingly bigger problem. Sure, it’s good to be safe and check for health problems, but performing procedures that are not truly needed can cause harm from the unneeded investigations and can result in seriously high patient costs. And that’s not to mention that unneeded exams and procedures are a waste of time for doctors and patients alike.

The recent issue of JAMA Internal Medicine has brought the dilemma to the attention of the medically-concerned public. The issue which, among other things, contains a study from Dr. Derek Emery of the University of Alberta, states that the problem is particularly prevalent where Magnetic Resonance Imaging, otherwise known as MRI, is concerned.

Dr. Emery’s study, in specific, focuses on the use of outpatient MRIs for the lumbar spine area (the lower back). After much research, he and his team of associates have concluded that there is, in fact, a large number of unneeded or unbeneficial lumbar spine MRIs being recommended and performed across Canada.

The particular results of the study are quite startling. Dr. Emery and his team concluded that more than half of the MRI lumbar scans ordered at two of the Canadian hospitals involved in the study were wholly unnecessary.

What is strange is that the use of MRIs for the lumbar spine region and other areas of the body has increased dramatically over the years, in both Canada and the United States. What makes this so strange is that the correlation between increased findings from the images and any real success, treatments for the symptoms and signs, has been murky at best. Simply put, a large number of the MRIs haven’t produced any solid results that doctors could further work off of.

One of the reasons that so many doctors order lumbar spine MRIs for patients experiencing certain types of pain or discomfort is to play it safe. Even if an MRI isn’t strictly needed, many doctors prefer to order one to rule out the possibility of a rare disease.

They sort of feel pressured to rule out these diseases by ordering the scans. It makes the patient feel as if the doctor is doing something, making progress, rather than just sending them on their way. It also protects the doctor from litigation in the rare case that anything problematic is uncovered.

As mentioned above, MRIs are not all fun and games though. For one thing, they’re expensive. Getting a lumbar spine MRI when you don’t strictly need one can take quite a chunk out of your wallet. It is also shown that MRIs can be harmful to your body and your health. Of course, if they uncover cancer, an injury, or disease in you, their negative benefits are all but canceled out. However, if you have too many unnecessary MRI scans, then the few risks involved can be potentially harmful.

Since Dr. Emery’s studies at the University of Alberta were fairly localized, no changes to current procedures will be made anytime soon. However, the study is sure to bring more attention to the overuse of lumbar spine MRIs, and the overuse of other medical procedures, in the near future. As more results and research are compiled, we’re sure to see some changes made to this particular area of health care in Canada.