Study Sheds Light On Disturbing Trend In MRI Scans For Back Pain

February 17, 2017 7:29 PM

NEW YORK (CBS New York) — There was disturbing news Friday, about the accuracy of MRI scans for back pain.

A new study says the commonly prescribed exams and the doctors reading them may be getting it wrong, and as CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez explained, that often leads to the wrong treatments.

Like millions of Americans, Susan Rock has suffered from severe back pain which kept her from her active lifestyle and running habit.

“It was an acute pain all the time, I had pain walking, I had pain sitting, I had pain lying down, and there would be sharp bursts,” she said.

Like so many back patients, Susan was sent for an MRI to try and find the cause of her pain.

“I was diagnosed with a slipped vertebrae, I was recommended for surgery,” she said.

For most patients and their doctor, that would be it. But what if the MRI itself and the radiologist reading it got it wrong?

“Many exams were inadequate as far as sequence or interpretation. Many exams had to be repeated to determine what would be the best type of care to perform on these patients at this time,” Dr. Richard Herzog said.

Those conclusions come from a just published study that sent one patient with well-defined back issues to ten different MRI centers around the Tri-State Area.

The lead author from the Hospital For Special Surgery was stunned by the results.

“We found an average diagnostic error rate of 12.5 per exam and a misrate of 43 percent per exam compared to our reference exams. That is a high number,” Dr. Herzog said.

The implications of those errors could be painful and costly.

“If the MRI is wrong, if it was interpreted incorrectly, all of the treatment that I will receive subsequent to that could be wrong, and so the ultimate impact for the patient is that they may never get better because what they are being treated for may not actually be what they have,” Spreemo health CEO, Ron Vianu said.

But insurance companies often insist that a patient go to the least expensive MRI center.

According to Spreemo Health — a healthcare analytics company that helped fund the study — the trick is to get health insurance to realize that paying more for quality scans up front actually saves money in the end.

Spreemo Health works with very large companies and insurers to get them to pay for that quality. It not only saves them money, but it gets their employees back to work sooner.

They hope to eventually be able to offer their quality evaluations directly to consumers.

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