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FATTER PATIENTS, FUZZY SCANS Print

Obesity Hampers Imaging Accuracy

Not only does excess weight raise disease risk, it could also make health problems harder to detect. Scientists wanted to know why the number of inconclusive radiology test results have doubled in the past 15 years — a time when the sophistication of such diagnostic equipment has advanced by leaps and bounds. Well, guess what else has nearly doubled in the past 15 years? America’s obesity rate! Increasingly, obesity hampers diagnostic accuracy, not only by expanding the layer of fat tissue that scans must penetrate — but even by barring patients from fitting into the machines at all.

A recent Harvard Medical School study looked at over 5 million radiology reports to see how many were hindered by “body habitus,” or physique. For computer tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the obstacle often resides in physical parameters of the equipment, which has compelled manufacturers to modify the design to accommodate patients weighing up to 550 pounds. In the case of ultrasound tests, excess fat inhibits the transmission of the high-frequency sound waves on which the technology relies.

Dr. Jorge Guerra, professor of radiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, predicts that very soon one-third of patients will weigh 350 pounds or more — a heavy consideration for doctors, medical equipment engineers, and, most importantly, patients themselves. So if you’ve been treating excess pounds lightly, add diagnostic accuracy to the list of reasons to lose weight, in addition to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer.


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