Children seen in the emergency room are now five times more likely to have a CT (or CAT) scan done than they were in 1995. Pedaitric radiologists have been working hard to use the smallest dose of radiation possible and have done a great job – but in almost all of the ER cases, the CTs are ordered in non-pediatric hospitals and the scans are read by non-pediatric radiologists. The most common types of scans done in ERs are head CT and abdominal CT. Abdominal CT was never used before 1995, but it is now used in up to one-fifth of the cases of abdominal pain in kids. Unlike adults, far fewer kids need an abdominal CT (which have seven times the radiation of a head CT) to make a diagnosis. The medical community is working hard to ensure the safety of kids – criteria for doing head scans exist and they are on the way for abdominal scans.
Bottom line: CT scans provide amazing and useful information for doctors when done in the right setting and with the right amount of radiation. Many of the CT scans ordered on kids in non-pediatric emergency rooms are not necessary. They should absolutely be done when needed – but they carry some risk. For example, to get the same radiation you get from one belly CT scan you would have to walk through an airport scanner 200,000 times. So ask questions when you take your child to the doctor – and if you can safely wait to see your pediatrician instead of going to an urgent care or emergency room you’ll probably get faster and more appropriate personalized care.