Imaging Policy & Legislation

Imaging and US Healthcare Costs

In the debate over rising US healthcare costs, medical imaging is often painted as a bad guy. But a new study in Health Affairs Scholar claims that since 2010, spending on imaging services has not grown at the same rate as other medical services. 

It’s no secret that the US spends far more on healthcare per capita than other developed countries, spending 16.6% of GDP as of 2022 according to OECD data. 

  • For point of reference, Germany spends 12.7%, France spends 12.1%, and most other developed countries spend under 12% of GDP. 

Reasons why the US is such an outlier have been blamed on a variety of factors, such as pharmaceutical prices, physician salaries, administrative costs, and the fragmented nature of the US healthcare system. 

  • But medical imaging is often singled out for criticism, perhaps due to the high cost of scanners and the explosion of imaging volume since the advent of cross-sectional technologies like CT and MRI in the 1970s and 1980s. 

This has led the US government to exert major pressure on imaging reimbursement in the Medicare and Medicaid systems, starting with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 and continuing to the present day, while private insurers have employed tools like prior authorization. 

The new study indicates that these efforts may have accomplished their mission. Researchers from the ACR’s Harvey L. Neiman Health Policy Institute analyzed imaging’s contribution to overall growth of medical costs from 2010 to 2021 in employer-sponsored insurance plans, finding …

  • Spending on medical imaging grew 36% 
  • Spending for all other healthcare services grew 64% 
  • Two-thirds of the growth in imaging spending was due to general price inflation
  • Only one-fifth was due to increased utilization
  • Imaging’s share of total US healthcare spending fell from 10.5% to 8.9%

The findings indicate that efforts by the US government and private payors to drive down imaging utilization are working … but at the price of overworked radiology staff.

  • Imaging cuts could also be leading to patient access issues, as the study found that the percentage of patients undergoing imaging fell from 46% in 2010 to 40% in 2021. 

The Takeaway

The new study reinforces what imaging advocates have been saying for years – that medical imaging isn’t a major cause for runaway healthcare spending in the US. The question is whether anyone outside of radiology is listening.

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