03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Price of Diagnostic Imaging Around the World

Diagnostic imaging represents one of the greatest leaps forward in medical innovation. With the advent of CT and MRI scans, physicians became able to move beyond the mere X-Ray and could visualize soft tissue, revolutionizing the practice of medicine. After all, how could the ability to see inside someone--to render three-dimensional images without breaking the skin--not forever change how doctors are able to do their job? But at what cost? Well, as it turns out, the cost of utilizing this sophisticated technology depends on where you plug the machine into the wall. Take a look. First up, the abdominal CT scan:

As you can see, three figures are included for the U.S. First, there is the low-end average price. Then, the high-end average price. Finally, the Medicare reimbursement rate. You'll notice that the U.S. "high" blows everything out of the water, while the U.S. "low" is higher than every other country as well--although Australia comes close to this figure. What's striking here? How reasonable Medicare reimbursement rates suddenly appear when compared not to the rest of the U.S. but to the rest of the world. Providers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK would all be quite pleased to be paid at the Medicare rate.

Does the trend hold up for other types of imaging? You bet. Here's the head CT scan:

The trend of imaging costing more in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world continues, but here comes something even more interesting. In most other countries, with the exception of Canada, a CT of the head costs less--sometimes much less--than a CT of the abdomen. Without going into it, there must be some basis for that, right? Perhaps the abdomen is more complex because of its different organs? Whatever the cause, it doesn't hold true in the U.S. where, contrary to the rest of the world, head CTs are far more expensive than abdominal CTs. Illogical? Probably.

Finally, there's the MRI. What do we find? Prices in the U.S. still trump the rest of the world, but the margins aren't as great. I can't give you a reason for that, it's just the way it is.

Coming up on Friday: The price of a visit to the doctor for a variety of ailments.

Subscribe to Wright on Health to see what else I have to say during the week. You can also contact me here.