Are Hospitals Going Overboard With Children’s CT Scans?

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Trips to IKEA can make any shopper want to bash their head in. But my girls took that desire to an all new level when they tumbled off of a slide in the children’s section of a Maryland location … and onto a hard floor. Judging from the blood flowing out of the back of my oldest’s cabeza, it was clear that her injury was serious enough to warrant a trip to the Emergency Room. Have you ever tried to leave an Ikea quickly? It’s unpossible. (And if you want to know why, check out this excellent Wall Street Journal article about the psychology of an Ikea store design.)

We drove with determination to the ER, praying that it was just a minor flesh wound. Our big girl maintained consciousness, never vomited, and even stopped crying after about 20 minutes. By the time we got there, we were wondering whether we even needed to. The admitting nurse, however, rushed us right in. My husband and the baby had to wait outside, since little ones aren’t allowed in the ER unless they’re patients. I attempted to answer all the questions they asked and they prepared to put stitches in our big girl’s head.

Just then, a doctor showed up and said she was ordering a CT Scan. The length of the fall concerned her. But according to a new study, that may have been the wrong call:

Nearly half of all children who are brought into the emergency room for head injuries undergo CT scans, according to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. But a new study suggests for many of these cases, a CT scan may be unnecessary.

Instead, children should be observed in the emergency room for a few hours longer before the physicians make a decision to send them for a CT scan, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

This sounds about right. CT scans are a great way to check for brain damage if a child has passed out, vomited, expressed confusion, or is dizzy. But is it an abundance of caution or a crippling fear of liability that led our ER doctor to make the call for a CT scan? It would be one thing if there were no downside, but the fact is that radiation exposure isn’t without risk. It can raises the risk of some forms of cancer and is dangerous for women who could be early on in their pregnancy (and exposed because they’re accompanying children to the scan).

(Photo: ThinkStock)