Benefits of medical imaging

The holidays can be a blur of festive parties, manic shopping, and last-ditch efforts to tie up loose ends for the year. Similarly, Congress is rushing to finish its own schedule for the year.
 
The yearly ritual of preventing scheduled cuts to Medicare payments to physicians is again before Congress. This year, the automatic cut is a whopping 27.4%. If Congress doesn’t act, there is widespread concern that, as Wyoming Senator John Barrasso cautions, these reimbursement cuts will inevitably make it more difficult for patients to receive critical treatments.
 

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Efforts to eliminate this annual problem and fix the physician payment system for good have again fallen by the wayside and a short term patch is in the offing along with the dreaded offsets to pay for it. As Congress considers where to look for cuts, it should consider the radical changes that have taken place in medical imaging over the last five years: Medicare spending on medical imaging continues to decline, Medicare patients are receiving fewer imaging procedures and imaging is now a smaller portion of Medicare spending than it was at the turn of the century.


Over the past six years, Congress and the Administration have cut Medicare reimbursements for medical imaging seven times. In fact, just yesterday MedPAC, the independent Congressional agency established to advise Congress on issues affecting the Medicare program said that imaging use in 2010 decreased by 2.5 percent.  

This analysis confirms a recent Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance analysis of 2010 Medicare claims data indicating a downward trend in both imaging spending and utilization in Medicare. This decline is in direct contrast with what is occurring in the rest of the Medicare program. In fact, spending for non-imaging Medicare services has grown by 20 percent since 2006 and utilization increased 2 percent in 2010. The assumption that life-saving diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy are the cause of healthcare inflation is simply not true.
 
The decline in the use of imaging comes at the same time as the value of imaging to patients and physicians is on the rise. Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) hailed CT-based lung cancer screening as one of the top five advances in cancer for 2011. This is based on clinical trial results showing that low-dose CT screenings for heavy smokers reduced their death risk from lung cancer by 20 percent!
 
Medical imaging manufacturers also strengthen the economy. Medical device companies nationwide employ an estimated two million people, paying an average wage of $60,000 per year. Globally, the United States is the leader of medical innovation, leading production of top-selling medical devices and boasting a slew of Nobel Prize winners in medicine. However, our innovative lead is eroding as international competitors from China to Germany have invested heavily in medical technology advancements.
 
The real-time health and economic benefits of medical imaging are clear.  With utilization and spending already on a downward trajectory, further cuts promise to reduce access to life-saving technology while simultaneously restricting innovation and growth during one of the worst global recessions in recent memory.


Fisher is Executive Director of the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance.