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Preventive full-body MRI scans: Vital information or unnecessary worry?

Preventive full-body MRI scans: Vital info or unnecessary worry?
Preventive full-body MRI scans: Vital info or unnecessary worry? 05:20

It's estimated that 2 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, in the United States alone, and hundreds of thousands will die. But what if there was a way to get a diagnosis sooner?

With the help of technology some companies are claiming to do just that with a full-body MRI. But the procedure isn't covered by health insurance -- so is it worth the money? Joy Benedict examines the issue.

A look around any crowd and it's easy to see the happy and sad, the seasoned and the future. But what lies beneath the surface of our skin has always been somewhat of a mystery.

But the newest trend in healthcare is offering a peek at what most have never seen before: a hidden view inside the window of our own bodies -- and our health.

At first glance, Prenuvo looks like a spa. The company is one of several offering full-body MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans as an elective, promising proactive screening for hundreds of potential health issues, including cancer.

Brett Mathew is a seemingly healthy 32-year-old we found waiting in the lobby of Prenuvo.

"Just a general check-up, basically, to see how my body is doing," said Mathew. "I had a skin cancer issue in the past, so I just want to make sure the rest of my body is all good to go."

This procedure isn't covered by health insurance, or even referred by your doctor. It's something celebrities are touting on social media and patients are choosing to pay thousands of dollars for, just in case.

"I entered my 40s, I had a bit of a midlife crisis and I wanted to really answer this question: Am I healthy?" said Prenuvo Founder and CEO Andrew Lacy.

"We started this company because we felt like the existing health system really wasn't doing a great job looking after our health," said Lacy.  "It's very reactive, and in that reactive system, a lot of horrible diseases like cancer are typically caught really late. So we wanted to imagine a different way of doing healthcare. It's not incrementally different, it's transformative."

In the last four years, Lacy has taken the idea and technology started by a radiologist in Vancouver and opened Prenuvo clinics in seven cities, with eight more clinics scheduled to open in the next year.

"We have now diagnosed something like 250,000 medical conditions, most of which people didn't know about before they had the scan," said Lacy.

But these types of scans have plenty of critics.

"There's no evidence it's going to help them. And it has potential harms," said Dr. Joann Elmore, a physician and educator at the School of Medicine at UCLA.

Elmore joins the American College of Preventive Medicine and the American College of Radiology, who also think these types of scans are unnecessary.

"If you're getting this exam for reassurance and to calm your anxiety about potentially having diseases, being told you have lots of potential abnormalities inside your body that then are going to lead you to have multiple tests is problematic," said Elmore.

Elmore says we all have abnormalities in our bodies, and although MRIs themselves have little-known side effects, she says the rabbit hole of possible issues can drain your mental health and your budget.

"It can put you on a perilous cascade," said Elmore. "There's no scientific evidence that detecting these lesions earlier is going to save lives. If there was, I would recommend it."

But the counter is, Why not?

"Why not do what mammogram did for women and breast cancer and do that for the whole body?" said Andrew Lacy.

So we decided to pay for Prenuvo's full-body scan, totaling $2,499. After filling out a detailed medical questionnaire to make sure the scan was safe for me, I headed into the clinic and laid down on the advanced MRI machine for about 50 minutes. The machine took 2,000 images in 26 different areas.

Ten days later I got a very detailed report and a call from a nurse practitioner. In every section, any findings were labeled as informational, minor or moderate. And they included a description and photos.

The issues recommended for me to follow up on were things I already knew about: Asymmetric tissue in my breast. A cyst near my ovaries, and consequences of a thyroid disorder.

And then there were minor things I didn't know about, with recommendations like, Work on my posture. But with two grandmothers who died of breast cancer and a father who recently passed -- also from cancer -- I found the images informative and fascinating.

"Just knowing that this is happening early means that you can make lifestyle adjustments, and hopefully never end up having to get medically treated for that condition," said Lacy.

As for Brett Mathew, he decided not to share his results, just saying they were not what he was looking for.

A private battle for health we all face. And a fight for knowledge that companies like Prenuvo hope we will all pay to see.


American College of Radiology Statement on Screening Total Body MRI:

"The American College of Radiology® (ACR®), at this time, does not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify recommending total body screening for patients with no clinical symptoms, risk factors or a family history suggesting underlying disease or serious injury. To date, there is no documented evidence that total body screening is cost-efficient or effective in prolonging life. In addition, the ACR is concerned that such procedures will lead to the identification of numerous non-specific findings that will not ultimately improve patients' health but will result in unnecessary follow-up testing and procedures, as well as significant expense. The ACR will continue to monitor scientific studies concerning the utility of screening total body MRI."


American College of Preventive Medicine: Choosing Wisely® in Preventive Medicine


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