The Radiation Risks at the Cardiologist

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According to a recent study, up to 50 percent of the most common heart exams are performed unnecessarily, and even in cases when these exams are warranted, the radiation doses are often up to 10 times higher than they should be. These include CT scans, percutaneous coronary intervention, cardiac electrophysiology, and nuclear cardiology, each of which is equivalent to 750 chest X-rays.

In all, radiation from cardiologists accounts for some 40 percent of all radiation exposure in patients. However, many cardiologists don’t realize that these radiation doses can significantly increase patients’ risk of developing cancer down the road. Before any testing, ask your doctor what is the likely radiation dose you’ll get from that examination and whether it’s absolutely necessary. 

“Yearly coronary CTs or myocardial perfusion scintigraphies in healthy people without symptoms [of heart problems] are inappropriate examinations in which the risks far exceed the expected benefit,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Eugenio Picano. “Even though the risk posed by one scan can be small, radiation risk is cumulative: Test adds to test, dose adds to dose, and risk adds to risk.”

Of course, in some situations, these exams are totally essential and the only option. “Whenever the test is appropriate and the radiation dose is optimized – such as for a heart attack patient receiving a lifesaving coronary angioplasty or a chest CT used for a suspected pulmonary embolism – then the benefit far exceeds the risk,” says Picano.