The Whole Truth Behind Whole Body MRI Scans – Overhyped, Overpriced, and Overrated!

A number of companies are currently marketing whole body MRI's directly to the public. They claim that these tests can detect cancer and other diseases at an early stage and they imply that this test can save lives. They often showcase futuristic offices and equipment reminiscent of a luxury spa or a scene from Star Trek. Some of their promotions feature dramatic stories from individuals who claim their lives were saved after tumors and other ailments were detected with this device.

Regardless of the promotional hype, there is no evidence to support the claim that these tests can actually save lives or lead to better outcomes. Moreover, there are reasons for caution.  Many perfectly healthy individuals who undergo a whole-body MRI will receive reports that include abnormal findings necessitating further testing. Often these additional tests will expose patients to a fair amount of radiation and in some cases they will lead to invasive procedures and biopsies, along with the associated pain and risks that come with those procedures. For many patients anxiety may also accompany the initial report and the additional testing. While in most cases, these additional tests will yield normal results, patients will have experienced all the negative effects and risks without any demonstrable benefit.

There is also a financial cost.  These MRI facilities charge between $1500-$2500 for a scan and insurance companies do not cover the cost.

One final note is that a "normal" test does not mean everything is OK. There is the risk that patients who have no abnormal findings on their scan may come away with the false impression that they have gotten a "clean bill of health" and that other proven screening tests are not necessary, or that they could at least be postponed for now. That is not true and this misperception could lead to missed opportunities for early cancer detection and ultimately lead to worse outcomes.

It's worth noting that no expert radiology association recommends these tests. No expert medical association of any specialty recommends these tests. In addition private insurance and Medicare do not cover these tests. The lack of expert support and insurance coverage is entirely due to the complete lack of data supporting their purported life-saving results. Until such data exists, these tests are not recommended.  I personally discourage my patients from doing them.

Michael Melgar, MD

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