Patient Obesity: Complicating Medical Scans

Everyone now knows that being overweight leads to numerous disease processes.  What most overweight people do not realize is that their size severely limits the ability of physicians to even tell them what’s wrong.

A new study has just revealed that the number of inconclusive imaging tests, CAT scans, MRIs, X-rays, etc…, has doubled in the last 15 years because many patients are too big.  In other words, radiologists are unable to accurately use these tests to make a diagnosis because the patient is simply too large.

Over the years, physicians have become increasingly dependent on testing like mammograms and CAT scans, called radiological imaging, to assist in their ability to diagnose many diseases.  Of course, a physical examination is always important, but a physician needs to be able to feel abnormalities when examining a patient and this is often impossible to do when the patient is obese.  When the doctor cannot tell what is wrong after examining a patient, an X-ray or other test is typically scheduled, but now we are learning that even these tests are inaccurate in larger people.

The reasons for this are many.  For example, it takes a much stronger “X-ray” to penetrate, or look inside, the body of a patient who has a large amount of fat; and, the quality of the images obtained decreases as the patient gets larger.  In some cases, even though the dose of radiation is dramatically increased, the images obtained are “fuzzy” and do not help to diagnose the patient’s problem.  Another example is ultrasound which is used to diagnose breast cancer, gallstones and many other disease processes.  Ultrasound sends high-frequency sound waves through the patient, where they bounce off internal organs, like a submarine’s sonar.  The ultrasound machine detects the returning sound waves and creates a picture of the organs.  Unfortunately, the thicker the patient is, the less the sound waves are able to penetrate, and the image quality is poor.

When radiologists are trying to obtain the tests they need, the problems caused by excess weight involve much more than difficulties interpreting poor quality images.  Special beds, extra personnel and “super-sized” wheelchairs are needed just to move patients safely when performing these tests.  There has even been a rise in the number of injuries sustained by hospital employees while transporting heavy patients.  Due to the extra equipment and personnel required, it typically takes longer to complete the tests, causing further delays in these patient’s diagnosis and care.

What has now become evident is that, not only do obese people have increased health problems due to their weight, but physician’s abilities to diagnose these disease processes is severely limited.  A large patient can no longer walk into a hospital and expect the best quality care because X-rays, CAT scans and other imaging studies are unable to detect and diagnose the problem.  Unfortunately, with the incidence of obesity on the rise, we can expect this situation to only get worse.

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