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Why Total Body Scans are Scams: Maze vs Bayes

Folks across the country are paying hard cash for total body scans, abdominal aortic aneurysm testing, CAT coronary artery scans and carotid artery evaluations to prevent disease or find important lesions early. It’s a seductive argument, and it’s a scam.

Ordinary patients don’t understand about pre-test probability and positive and negative predictive values. Indeed, all physicians were taught to consider Bayesian theory when ordering diagnostic tests. This is very tough concept for patients to grasp. A critical principle of proper diagnostic testing can be summarized in a single sentence.

If an individual is unlikely to have the medical condition under consideration, then a diagnostic test that yields a positive result is likely to be a false reading.

Here is an illustration demonstrating why patients need to understand this issue. While the forthcoming example is hypothetical, I guarantee that every physician has seen very similar patients in their practices. While the patient presented here has a presumed cardiology issue, every medical specialist and primary care physician can land in the same trap. When this occurs, patients suffer.

A 30-year-old non-smoker sees me in the office with chest pain that is readily relieved with antacids. It is very unlikely to be angina, and probably represents simple heartburn. If I arrange for this person to undergo a cardiac stress test, and the result is positive, then it is much more likely that  the test result is wrong than that the individual has true heart disease. This is not simply my opinion, but a conclusion based upon mathematical and statistical principles. However, try explaining this to a patient with a false positive stress test result. Despite the physician’s reassurance that the test result is erroneous, the patient will likely become anxious and remain unconvinced. Such a patient can easily slide, or be pushed, down a medical cascade that may include cardiac catheterization, or even stenting of a coronary artery that was not responsible for the patient’s symptoms, and should have been left alone.

The key is that diagnostic tests need to be ordered when the patient has a reasonable chance of having the condition under consideration. (If the physician is nearly certain of the disease, then the test may not be needed.) This determination is made on the basis of a careful history and physical examination. When stress tests and various scans are ordered casually by physicians, or requested by patients, then this opens a pathway into a medical labyrinth with no easy way out. Would you prefer to agonize over a false positive test result that pushes you toward medical quicksand, or avoid an unnecessary test in the first place?

Of course, there are rare individuals who have benefited from a scan that was ordered for the wrong reasons. These folks understandably are convinced that the scan saved their lives. These anecdotes, however, which make for potent testimonials, should not change established medical diagnostic principles. Every day, folks become millionaires after purchasing winning lottery tickets. Since nearly 100% of lottery tickets become bookmarks or end up in landfills, we know that this is a poor strategy to accumulate wealth. Should every person undergo a CAT scan of the head every year because it is theoretically possible that a few might benefit by accident? Dumb luck should not be our diagnostic touchstone.

Total body scans, and all of their cousins, are examples of medicine at its worst. It is a commercial enterprise that bypasses sound medical principles and judgment. These entrepreneurs proffer a promise that they know they cannot fulfill. It’s a scam clad in a white coat. For the majority of their unsuspecting customers, a positive result will be wrong and a negative result will guarantee nothing.  I realize that an ordinary patient will celebrate when his total body scan is negative, but this is not how medicine works.  You can have a normal EKG performed weekly, but this will not prevent a heart attack or exclude significant coronary artery disease. 

Still thinking about that cardiac scan being advertised in the newspaper or on television? Do yourself a favor. Buy some snake oil instead. The result will be the same, but you won’t waste nearly as much money and you won’t end up with a stent.

Many patients who have endured a ride on the medical cascade may feel that they were rescued from certain disaster.  I'd rather rescue folks from the cascade.


  1. Don't you wish you could prescribe a course in Bayesian statistics for your patients and make sure they take it?

    Of course, were that possible, I'd have an entire college curriculum ready to roll out for certain politicians...

  2. Here's an interesting concept:

    Right now what we provide to patients is greatly controlled by insurers, and many doctors moving to or thinking of moving to a cash only no insurance model. In theory, they are restoring the true doctor patient relationship by cutting out a middle man that is going to mediate the care. At the same time, the patient becomes financially responsible, in some way at least, for the medical care they consume.

    In this new model, is it more likely that patients will consume medical care that is not good for them? If every CT scan were paid for in cash, would every CT scanner then start doing whole body scans for patients that requested them, or would there be some that chose to screen more carefully?

    Another thought -

    What about these screening lung CTs for long term smokers? I'm not sure of the performance of that test in this population, but it may be a similar issue.

  3. Thanks commenters. I think it is inarguable that medical overutilization is fueled to a great extent by the patient not paying for the care. If the physician or the patient casually thinks that an MRI makes sense, the trigger is pulled since neither of them are paying for it. If the patient bore some financial responsbility for diagnostic tests, then this would serve as a brake on the system. I recognize, however, that this could also pose a barrier for truly needed care. A balance would need to be established.

  4. Naked body scanners courtesy by TSA are also scam and almost everybody agrees to be irradiated.

  5. I disagree with a lot of the above. First, insurance won't pay for the prophlyactic use of body scanners, so the patient does have a financial interest in the procedure. Seoond, I think in some populations they are absolutely helpful in savings lives. Take for example: Mid-fifties, 40 pack year history with some occupational exposure, with two brothers diagnosed with late stage lung ca in their late fifties. Should I just wait for the inevitable bad news when it's too late to treat, or get the lung scans now and very probably catch it in stage 1 or 2. I think I'd choose the latter. Thanks.

  6. Shawn, I disagree with you. Cost aside, I think you have more to lose than gain from a total body scan. I realize to an ordinary person, the scan sounds like it can't hurt and can only help. I have tried to point out in the post why this is a fallacy. Thanks for your comment.

  7. I LIke your site and good information
    positive and negative predictive values of body scan,Thanks
    Full Body CT scan

  8. as erroneous as you believe these scans to be, if one could have saved my husband from sudden death at 42 of an undiagnosed abdominal aortic aneurysm, i would have been on my knees thanking God for the ability to buy one myself and not have to wait for a Dr. to order one. Of all the stupid things we people waste our money on, a whole body CT scan is not one of them. If it saves a life once in a blue moon its worth it. Quit scaring people away from something that could be a good thing, doc!

  9. The commenter above, perhaps inadvertently, reveals the fallacy of the argument in the article: A sample is not a population. It's a common error to make when trying to employ statistics in everyday problems. If you'd like more background, sign up for my class next semester!

  10. I love how MDs refer to others as "ordinary people". While it is true that wearing your seatbelt every time you drive is unlikely to save your life on any given day, we still advise people to always wear them. Why? because the cost to do this is near zero (one second of our time per click). In our lifetimes we may only have a single accident where the seat belt actually saves our lives but we collectively think that all the thousands of seconds we spend needless clicking our seat belts is worth it. The only thing distinguishing this from MRI scanning for early diagnosis of a once-in-a-lifetime life threatening medical condition is the cost to the health care system. If not for the cost these holier-than-thou MDs would not have such heartburn with routine MRI scanning. Indeed, using population statistics to argue against routine MRI in order to save costs is about as convincing as telling me I should not wear a seatbelt. I care about my "n of 1" event because I am a sample not a distribution. And for that I will get scanned.

  11. "Equity" has it right. This is Advice from the elites for the little folk. Do the rich get scanned? You'd better believe it. Do you think Obama gets scanned? At least once a year and you are paying for it. Obama and his comrades will never be forced into Obamacare and will never have to pay a dime for the world's best healthcare thanks to the American taxpayer and their gullibility. For the rest of us the advice is: "dont overuse the system, stop eating so much, and die as quickly and cheaply as possible."

  12. Ppl flock to full body scans because they feel their doctor leaves questions unanswered. The doctor, per see, is not to blame. What can a doctor capture about my status in a 15 minute visit, including hand shaking? Extra knowledge is always welcome, how to use it requires brain use as everything else. Shall we burn all books and keep few elected ppl to detain knowledge for everybody else?

  13. Hey guys, found this article while considering a Total Body Scan.

    I'm actually a stats major and a spent a ton of my postgrad time working on Baysian fact I've been back and forth on getting the continuos version of the formula tattooed on my arm :) So i understand those arguments well.

    My situation is that my dad has 7 brothers, 6 of them have had heart attacks in their 40-early 50's. My mum has 3 brothers, 1 died in his 50's due to a heart attack.

    I'm currently 31 and although I'm in great condition I don't understand what harm that can come from one of these total body scans.

    Suppose I do get a false positive, we simply get further, more detailed tests and only take invasive action once we're reasonably certain.

    If I get a negative test, I can pat myself on the back for a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise :)

    I would love for someone to tear above my above logic and explain exactly why even if the test were for free it's not in my best interests to take it...

  14. Love the info here.After watching my wife suffer with no relief in sight she will be getting this scan. Thus far no doctor here in Florida can pin point the reason for her ailments and none have ordered a scan to see what is truly happening. Go figure! So I will invest a few trees($)in an effort to restore her happiness..

  15. If a picture is taken of someone with freckles no one disputes they are present when viewing the photo. Has full body scan technology advanced that much? What percentage is required 51%, 70%, 80% accuratcy before its as common as xrays and ultrasounds? Like it or not its coming. Someday Dr. Leonard H. "Bones" McCoy will have you on a table.


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