Questions to Ask Before Your Child Has X-rays or CT Scans

Radiation is used with a number of different types of medical imaging, including:

These tests are valuable, important tools to help in the diagnosis and management of acute injuries and major medical problems.  While these tests can have great utility, they can also be used when not necessary.  Because the tests cause exposure to radiation, care should be used whenever a decision is made to obtain one of these studies.

Ultimately, the need for the test should be balanced with the exposure to potentially harmful radiation.  While the harm from radiation is small, it is not zero.  Furthermore, some of these tests expose patients to relatively high doses of radiation.  Therefore, it is important to understand why a test is needed, and what alternatives your child might have.  Below are some questions that parents can ask their doctor to help guide when and where a radiology study should be performed.

How Will This Exam Improve Her Care?

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The most important question to ask is "why is this test being done?"  While it may seem obvious, sometimes there is not a good reason.  Sometimes getting a test is easier than carefully examining a patient, taking a thorough history, and trying to understand the cause of the problem.  Tests that expose patients to radiation should not be done because they are easy to obtain. 

Sometimes doctors may order a test because they want the patient or their family to think he or she is being thorough.  When a parent asks the doctor how a test will improve care, not only does it force the doctor to understand why the test is needed, but it also gives your doctor confidence that you wont be upset if a test is not done.

Are There Alternative Tests That Can Be Used?

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Sometimes an x-ray or a CT scan is the right test and the best test to be done for a particular problem or condition.  However, sometimes there are other options.  Emergency rooms are using ultrasound much more often to diagnose a variety of conditions.  Sometimes the are options other than test that cause radiation exposure.

Is The Facility Accredited for Quality and Safety?

mri ct scan test
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While this may not seem an obvious question to ask, it is very important.  Facilities that go through rigorous credentialing processes are less likely to make mistakes with radiation exposure. 

You can specifically ask if the facility is accredited with the American College of Radiology, or you can use the ACR Online Facility Search to find a facility that has met their standards in your area.

Will My Child Receive a Pediatric Dose of Radiation?

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Children who are exposed to adult doses of radiation are often exposed to too much radiation.  Facilities should have separate procedures and protocols in place to ensure that any child receiving an imaging test is not overexposed to radiation.

Some people advocate using a children's hospital when possible to ensure that kids are receiving the lowest possible doses of radiation exposure.


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Don't Be Afraid To Ask

It's OK to ask your doctor why a child requires a test that causes exposure to radiation. In fact, this is a good thing for a parent to do. While it may be the case that the test is necessary and helpful, it may also prevent your child from being exposed to potentially harmful radiation. It is also important to remember that radiation exposure is normal. Every day, we are exposed to radiation from the sun. A single x-ray exposes your body to about a day's worth of radiation, less than an airline flight. A CT scan can expose your body to more than a year's worth of sunlight radiation.

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