ASE: Are cardiovascular sonographers at high risk of radiation exposure?

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There is growing concern among cardiac sonographers about the amount of radiation exposure they experience on the job and few say their workplace has a formal policy to address radiation safety for sonographers, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE).

Initial results of the poll, which included responses from 90 sonographers, showed that 63 percent of the respondents believe radiation safety is of concern, but only 13 percent said that a formal policy was in place at their facility to specifically address radiation safety for cardiovascular sonographers.

ASE is bringing attention to these concerns as part of Medical Ultrasound Awareness Month.

Echocardiography is a radiation-free diagnostic test, but as more cardiovascular labs move toward a multimodality model where nuclear and ultrasound imaging are done in the same facility, there is a growing need to protect sonographers from exposure. In the ASE poll, 98 percent of respondents said they work in a facility where both echocardiograms and nuclear medicine studies are performed and 21 percent regularly spend time in a catheterization lab.

The ASE cited the Health Physics Society, which advised that close contact with radiated patients can lead to an unacceptable level of exposure. Sonographers may be exposed to significant levels of radiation from patients who have both a nuclear stress test and a cardiovascular ultrasound on the same day, and also from spending time in catheterization labs and hybrid rooms.

A 2009 report from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements said Americans in 2006 were exposed to more than seven times as much ionizing radiation from medical procedures as in the early 1980s. The increased use of medical imaging procedures was the primary cause of the overall radiation exposure growth.

Because of the growing and constantly changing risks associated with radiation exposure in medical imaging, the ASE said there needs to be a greater awareness of the causes of exposure along with the implementation of prevention techniques for sonographers. For example, the ASE pointed to a suggestion from one of the survey respondents who said patients receiving both echocardiography and nuclear stress tests on the same day should be scheduled so the ultrasound test is performed first, before any nuclear department examinations. Also, the Health Physics Society advised putting personal radiation monitors on sonographers to determine just how much dose they actually receive.

The ASE will continue to collect information on the issue and update data on best practices and common concerns on their website.