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Dr. Kim Mulvihill ReportingWhen it comes to screening for colon cancer, the most important step is getting it done. Having been through both the virtual colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy, I can attest to the fact the virtual is faster and easier. But how well does it work?
According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the virtual is just as good as the traditional colonoscopy when it comes to spotting problems.
Judy Yee, M.D., UCSF & SF VA Medical Center: “It had excellent results for the large polyps and for medium-sized polyps.”
Among 1,200 healthy adults conventional colonoscopy detected 91% of pre-cancerous polyps, while a virtual colonoscopy spotted the polyps almost 94% of the time. What's more, there weren't many false positives with the virtual technique.
As for risks, a virtual colonoscopy is non-invasive so you don't have the risk of perforation, bleeding or infection that go along with the conventional procedure. And while there is a very low risk from radiation with the virtual, there is an added benefit of having a CT scan.
Judy Yee, M.D.: “We have picked up kidney cancers, significant abdominal aortic aneurysms, liver masses and often because we scan the bottom of the lungs, we also have picked up lung cancers.”
In general the virtual costs less, ranging from $500 to $1500. Conventional colonoscopies starts at about $1,000 and goes up if a polyp needs to be removed. And while virtual colonoscopy is not covered by insurance, that could be changing. The VA system is considering adding the high-tech screening nationwide.
Judy Yee, M.D.: “There are not enough gastroenterologists within the United States to perform all the screening colonoscopies that we need to perform on all of those patients who are age 50 and above.”
Simply put, it's a division of labor. People with average risk of colon cancer could be screened by radiologists while those who are more likely to have a problem would go straight to a traditional colonoscopy, and avoid the need for a second procedure.
With either the traditional or virtual colonoscopy, you still have to clean out your system - which for many is the worst part. But scientists are working on a "prep"-less version for the virtual, which would really make this procedure a lot easier.