FDA To Revise Guidance on Medical Imaging: What Does That Say About Medical Monitoring?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it will set new safeguards for medical imaging to reduce the amount of radiation to which patients may be exposed through increasingly common radiation-based diagnostic procedures.

Like all medical procedures, computed tomography (CT), fluoroscopy, and nuclear medicine imaging exams present both benefits and risks. These types of imaging procedures have led to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of numerous medical conditions. At the same time, these types of exams expose patients to ionizing radiation, which may elevate a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer.

Through the Initiative to Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging, FDA is advocating the universal adoption of two principles of radiation protection: appropriate justification for ordering each procedure, and careful optimization of the radiation dose used during each procedure. In other words, each patient should get the right imaging exam, at the right time, with the right radiation dose.

According to a March 2009 report by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the U.S. population’s total exposure to ionizing radiation has nearly doubled over the past two decades. This rise is largely attributable to increased exposure from CT, nuclear medicine, and interventional fluoroscopy. NCRP estimates that 67 million CT scans, 18 million nuclear medicine procedures, and 17 million interventional fluoroscopy procedures, and 18 million nuclear medicine procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2006.

Concerns have been raised about the risks associated with patients’ exposure to radiation from medical imaging. Because ionizing radiation can cause damage to DNA, exposure can increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer. Although the risk to an individual from a single exam may not itself be large, millions of exams are performed each year, making radiation exposure from medical imaging an important public health issue. Some experts have estimated recently that t approximately 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans performed in the U.S. in 2007. While estimates vary, most responsible public health officials agree that care should be taken to weigh the medical necessity of a given level of radiation exposure against the risks.

Against this backdrop, plaintiff lawyers continue to seek medical monitoring in the form of CT and other scans for millions of proposed class members around the country.  Plaintiffs' theory is that exposure to an alleged toxic substance has put the class at an increased risk of developing disease in the future, and thus they need medical monitoring to early detect the disease.  Most jurisdictions have not recognized this claim, but in those that do, defendants will want to pay close attention to the elements of the claim that require a plaintiff to prove that the testing is reasonably medically necessary or part of the standard of care.  The reason that treating physicians and public health agencies do NOT recommend monitoring in the form of CT scans for healthy, asymptomatic folks may increasingly include this issue of potential over-exposure.  While jurors may come to the court room with the pre-load that monitoring is great because early detection saves lives, the reality is that in many contexts, monitoring may do more harm than good.

Because CT, fluoroscopy, and nuclear medicine require the use of radiation, some level of radiation exposure is inherent in these types of procedures. Only when these procedures are conducted appropriately do the medical benefits they can provide generally outweigh the risks.  In the medical monitoring context, patients may be exposed to radiation without sufficient clinical need or benefit. Unnecessary radiation exposure, and thus cancer risk, results from the performance of a particular medical imaging procedure when it is not medically justified given a patient’s signs and symptoms, or when an alternative might be preferable given a patient’s lifetime history of radiation exposure.  That kind of needed individual assessment is one of the reasons why class-wide determination of medical monitoring is a bad idea. While plaintiffs trumpet the new technology, reports suggest that the radiation dose associated with one CT abdomen scan is the same as the dose from about 400 chest X-rays.

ACS Head Offers Different View of Medical Monitoring

Readers of MassTortDefense involved in the defense of medical monitoring cases will want to follow the ongoing debate occasioned by the New York Times story this week, quoting Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, admitting that American medicine has over-promised when it comes to medical screening and that the advantages of screening have been “exaggerated.”

Medical monitoring, whether a remedy or cause of action, is a claim for the cost of medical screening for a plaintiff exposed to a toxic substance allegedly because of the defendant’s wrongful conduct and who is accordingly at risk of future disease. Medical monitoring is designed to early detect the disease and thus maximize the chances of a cure or beneficial treatment.

As a an advocacy matter, medical monitoring is presented by plaintiffs with the seemingly unchallengeable notion that early detection saves lives. Plaintiff attorneys rely heavily on juror pre-loads about the importance and benefits of screening; virtually every juror has had a Pap smear, or mammogram, or prostrate test, and they have all been inundated with messages from the American Cancer Society that screening is highly efficacious-- messages that ignore the risks of screening. Defendants fight an uphill battle when they try to get the jury to keep an open mind about the risks and benefits of plaintiffs’ experts' proposed screening program.

Reportedly, the ACS is now working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasize that screening for breast, prostate, and other cancers can come with a real risk. Those risks include not only the risks of the screening procedures themselves (such as radiation), but the risks of false positives, and the follow-on risks of over-treating a nodule that would never have developed into life-threatening disease. On the flip side, many researchers point out that the prostate cancer screening test has not been shown to prevent prostate cancer deaths. Similar lack of benefit has been noted with chest x-rays and CT scans for lung cancer. If cancer screening was really as effective as plaintiffs assert, the cancers that once were found late, when they were untreatable or incurable, would now be found earlier, when they could be treated and cured. Thus, a large increase in early cancers found would be accompanied by a decline in late-stage cancers, and an improvement in mortality. That just hasn’t happened for many types of screening.

Whether the issue is the screening tool or the screening itself, plaintiffs should no longer be allowed to base their medical monitoring claims on a widely accepted misconception that all screening is good, and all early detection saves lives.  Defense attorneys may have a juror pool more receptive to the evidence-based argument that plaintiffs must be held to their burden of proof to show that a monitoring procedure exists that makes early detection of the disease possible; the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.
 

 

Report Offers Another Reason To Reject Medical Monitoring

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission reported this month the results of a study suggesting that when physicians have a financial interest in medical imaging equipment, they are more likely to order imaging tests and incur higher overall spending on their patients' care.  The June MedPAC report is titled Report to the Congress: Improving Incentives in the Medicare Program.  Such an issue seems important to the current debate on health care reform and efforts to curb the rising costs of health care.  But is it of interest to readers of MassTortDefense?

Imaging, particularly the use of PET scans and CT scans, is a favorite tool of plaintiffs' lawyers seeking medical monitoring. Currently before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is a case involving a proposed class action seeking CT scans for lung cancer. See Kathleen Donovan, et al. v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., SJC No. 10409 (Mass. SJC, argued June 9, 2009)

Multiple policy grounds support the decision to reject  medical monitoring. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997). This imaging issue stands as yet another reason courts need to be careful with claims for medical monitoring and wary of plaintiff experts opining that imaging is reasonably medically necessary ( a typical element of a medical monitoring claim) because it is supposedly becoming more widely used. See Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Dept. of the Army and Dept. of Defense of the U.S., 548 Pa. 178, 696 A.2d 137, 145-46 (1997) (requiring the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles); Wyeth, Inc. v. Gottlieb, 930 So.2d 635 (Fla.App. 3 Dist.2006) (same).

MedPAC is an independent advisory body charged with providing policy analysis and advice concerning the Medicare program, and issued its most recent report to Congress on imaging, among other topics.  The commission noted that rapid technological progress in diagnostic imaging over the last decade has enabled physicians to more effectively diagnose and treat certain illnesses. At the same time, use of medical imaging has grown in certain areas of the country, without a clear benefit in terms of the quality of care.   The report also noted that recent research indicates a particular expansion of in-office imaging as many physicians buy and use machines in their offices, rather than refer patients out.

The report cites the 2008 Government Accountability Office report which ties the growth in Medicare spending to the increase in physicians who perform advanced imaging services in their office. That GAO report found that Medicare spending for imaging services performed by doctors doubled from 2000 to 2006. In particular, costs for advanced imaging such as computed tomography (CT) scans and nuclear medicine rose faster than other standard previous imaging services such as MRIs.

 

 

 

Medical Monitoring: Evidence Of More Harm Than Good

MassTortDefense has posted about medical monitoring claims. One of the advantages plaintiffs may have with juries in such claims is the pre-loaded notion that early detection is "always" better; therefore, screening tests must be helpful, right? Jurors are inundated with messages from public health authorities, government agencies, insurers and others about getting this or that screening test. The latest we saw: get your husband a colo-rectal screening for Christmas.


Undoubtedly, preventive care is crucial, and early detection by some tests of some disease has been shown to save lives. But not every test regime conjured up by plaintiffs' attorneys or their experts for a class of litigants falls into the same category as tests recommended for specific populations by, for example, the US Preventive Services Task Force.

Defendants need to explore the argument that a proposed monitoring test may do more harm than good. Proposed tests have potential side effects, risks. For example, researchers are looking at the risks posed by CT scans.

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston told a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago last week that as many as 7 percent of patients from a large U.S. hospital system had enough radiation exposure from CT scans during their lifetime to noticeably raise their risk of cancer. CT scans help diagnosis of a variety of illness and injuries, and are routinely used to track the advance of cancer. But a number of recent studies have raised alarms about the potential cancer risks from the radiation. The BWH group studied all patients who had a CT scan in 2007 at Brigham and Women's Hospital, or at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston. Then they checked on prior CT scans from a database that includes 20+ years of patient history and calculated overall radiation exposure based on the type and location of the scan. This allowed them to determine a lifetime risk. They found about 7 percent of the patients did have a cancer risk that increased by at least 1 percent over the baseline cancer rate.


And that's for symptomatic patients using the scans. For them, the radiation exposure from CT scans may be worth the risk. But for non-symptomatic, healthy plaintiffs who claim some often unverified level of exposure to a toxic substance, getting repeated CT scans under a medical monitoring regime could raise their risk of a tumor. And certain groups are more likely to be harmed by radiation, including younger people whose growing tissues may be more vulnerable according to some studies.

A typical CT scan can deliver 50 to 100 times more radiation than a conventional X-ray, depending on the site being examined and the type of the machine. Some 62 million CT scans are done in the U.S. annually.