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US doctors caught ordering needless MRIs for patients to earn extra kickbacks

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: MRIs, self-referrals, kickbacks

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(NaturalNews) The next time your doctor tells you to get an imaging test for an alleged condition or injury, you might want to ask him whether or not he has any financial ties to the imaging facility where you are referred. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Radiology provides solid evidence to suggest that doctors with a financial stake in the medical imaging field could be needlessly ordering more imaging tests for their patients in order to earn extra kickbacks.

Drawing from data collected as part of an imaging test frequency comparison, Dr. Matthew Lungren from Duke Medicine and his colleagues determined that the rate of imaging test orders was significantly higher at one particular practice where doctors had a monetary interest in a medical imaging facility, compared to another practice where doctors had no such interest. The practice with the financial stake, it turns out, ordered about one-third more imaging tests that produced negative results compared to the other practice.

Concerning the accuracy of their assessment, the study team made sure to evaluate the same number of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests ordered from each practice, 350, as well as include patients from both practices that were of similar ages and health statuses. Both practices also referred their patients to the same imaging center which, in essence, makes them identical in almost every way except for their relationship with the imaging center.

"There are a lot of possible explanations for this but the bottom line is that there is a significantly higher number of negative studies coming out of the one specific group," Dr. Lungren is quoted as saying. "It does raise the questions: Are these studies being performed unnecessarily? Are these machines being over utilized because of an unconscious bias?"

'Self referrals' are profitable for doctors, but potentially dangerous for patients

So-called "self referrals," where doctors refer their patients to other doctors or specialists with whom they are connected, either financially or otherwise, are nothing new. Previous studies, including The Synthesis Project, have found not only that self referrals are prominent and on the rise, but that in almost every case, they lead to an increased usage of health care services, i.e. more referrals and thus more income for the referring doctor.

"This whole issue of self-referral and imaging has a long history," adds Dr. David Levine, a professor and chairman emeritus at Thomas Jefferson University's Department of Radiology, as quoted by Reuters. Dr. Levine was not involved in this latest study. "Every study that's ever been done shows self-referring physicians are going to do more imaging than physicians who refer patients to hospitals or imaging centers."

Besides costing patients and their insurance carriers more money, the excessive or needless ordering of tests and other health services also puts patients in danger. Particularly with imaging tests like X-rays and CT scans, perpetual exposure to radiation can lead to health problems, including but not limited to cancer. In other words, greedy doctors trying to make an extra buck are putting many patients in danger.

"Some examinations like CT and X-rays, despite recent advances in lower-dose techniques, are still dangerous," wrote Dr. Helene Pavlov, M.D., in a piece published earlier this year by The Huffington Post. "If you're uncomfortable with the number of imaging examinations your physician has ordered over the past several years, question your physician."

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