Inevitably, medicine in America has come to this: newspaper ads offering discounted body scans. Clip the coupon and bring it on down, for a digital gaze at your own guts. Act now for early detection of cancer, heart disease, tumors, and other time bombs.
So I did act, offering my 41-year-old body for a session of neck-to-pelvis computerized tomography (CT) at a clinic in Boca Raton, Florida, that pitches the scan as "a great gift idea." And I am not alone in being seduced by the prospect of pay-per-view medicine. Imaging centers catering to the self-referred (and generally asymptomatic) crowd are, notes Mitch Goldburgh of research firm IMV, opening up by the dozens. Neither the government nor the medical community measures the trend, but thousands of people are bypassing their doctors and lining up for scans, which run from $800 to $1,300.
A hypochondriac's dream come true? Maybe, but your insurance company won't cover it, since a doctor didn't order it. Many physicians question whether the tests are as effective at early detection as is claimed, and it's hard to know because there have been no rigorous studies of voluntary CT scans. The American College of Radiology, the governing body of sorts in this area, only notes that there isn't enough evidence to justify CT scans for patients with no symptoms, and expresses concern about undue "patient anxiety" and "wasted expense."
None of these people will come to my funeral, however, and I have spent $800 on more foolish things, most recently on a series of golf lessons that failed to produce a swing that even consistently hits the ball. A CT scan is, save for the cost, the sort of painless procedure that appeals to my curious but, when it comes to medicine, cowardly nature.
Sure, it feels a bit reckless to select a healthcare provider based on a newspaper ad. I'm more careful about where my car gets serviced. But these labs are run by doctors and, perhaps naively, I trust that a physician with X rays of my body wouldn't lie with the greasy dexterity of a mechanic manning the diagnostic gear hooked up to my Porsche.