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The BBC's Peter Bowes in California
"They scan 30 to 40 people every day"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 2 January, 2001, 10:46 GMT
US doctors offer full body scan
Scan images BBC
The scan produces images from all angles
A controversial new health check that involves a full body scan has been developed in the United States. The BBC's Peter Bowes visited a unique health centre in Los Angeles to try for himself the procedure that promises a 3D computerised journey through your own body.


At the HealthView Centre for Preventative Medicine in Newport Beach, California, Dr Harvey Eisenberg and his team scan up to 40 people every day.


There is not a single human being that I've examined that I haven't found some evolving pathology

Dr Harvey Eisenberg
While many are apparently healthy and exhibit no symptoms, the scan often reveals lurking diseases.

Dr Eisenberg said: "People regularly walk in here on a daily basis, who are physically fit, eat a reasonable diet, have just had a recent stress test and are at the stage of advanced cardiovascular disease and high risk for sudden death from heart attacks."

The procedure itself takes about 15 minutes. It is followed by a detailed consultation with a physician lasting up to two hours.

Early signs

An ultra-fast electron-beam computed tomography (CT) scanner is used to take hundreds of snap shot images of the body from the neck to the pelvis.

Full body scan BBC
Vivid 3D images are possible
Using special software, the images are transformed into detailed 3D colour images which can be viewed on the same day by the patient. Dr Eisenberg has scanned more than 15,000 patients.

He said: "There is not a single human being that I've examined that I haven't found some evolving pathology."

But he stressed: "Most people go home feeling more in control of their bodies. Most problems are the early signs of disease which are curable or reversible."

The main body scan checks vital organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys.

Signs of vascular disease can be spotted in the form of plaque while cancerous growths can be identified long before they cause the body to exhibit symptoms.

'It saved my life'

Commander Betty Kelepecz is a senior officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

She decided to have a full body scan when her employers' health insurance company offered to pay for most of the procedure. The full cost is $795 (550).

Commander Betty Kelepecz BBC
Commander Betty Kelepecz thought she was healthy
She said: "I had expected to hear that I was perfect - I had no symptoms of anything, I was feeling fine."

However, the scan identified a large mass in her kidney which was eventually confirmed by a kidney specialist to be a form of cancer which could prove fatal.

Shortly afterwards, Commander Kelepecz had her right kidney removed along with the cancer which had not spread throughout her body.

She said: "Had it not been for the fact that I had gone in for this CAT scan early in my life, early in the stage of the cancer, and had this cancer metastasised, the prognosis would have been a 10-15% chance of living beyond five years.

"That's the frightening, yet the exhilarating, thing for me."

Trepidation

Having interviewed Commander Kelepecz, it was with some trepidation that I attended the HealthView centre for my own body scan. In addition to the basic check, I also opted to have what they call a virtual colonoscopy.

Unlike other methods of searching for colon cancer, the new procedure is non-invasive - it involves the insertion of no long tubes into the body. You also remain fully awake.

Kidney scan BBC
Commander Kelepecz's scan revealed kidney problems
The process of sitting down with a doctor for a virtual tour of your body is not for the faint hearted.

"You will in fact be greatly empowered by the knowledge of what is going on and what is not going on - knowing that you really can do something about what ever you find," said Dr Eisenberg.

As a marathon runner, healthy-eater and non-smoker, I felt reasonably confident the prognosis would be good. However, within minutes, the doctor had identified a potential problem.

"The first thing we see is you have a kidney stone," he said. "And it's not terribly small."

I was reassured that it would eventually pass and that one day, when I am awakened by the feeling of being kicked by a mule, I would at least have a good idea what was causing the pain.

I was cheered by the news that my vital organs were in "remarkably good shape" - exhibiting none of the tell-tale sign of illness for someone aged 38.

No need for scan

Critics argue that most people do not need such an elaborate scan.

There is a chance it could miss a serious health problem or produce inconclusive results.

Dr Harvey Eisenberg  BBC
Dr Harvey Eisenberg has developed the scan
The accuracy of the virtual colonoscopy is the subject of considerable debate within the medical profession.

According to Dr Sidney Friedman, Director of Radiology at the Westchester Imaging Centre in Los Angeles, some patients will face the prospect of having further tests to clarify the results of their body scan.

He said: "Overall, as a broad screening test for young, healthy people, I think it is not warranted.

"In most cases, people would be better off living a healthier lifestyle, cutting out cigarettes and eating well, rather than having these expensive tests to pick up the very rare situation of a tumour in a young person early on."

However, Dr Eisenberg said more than 300 GPs had visited the HealthView centre to evaluate the system.

"I do not think we have had a single physician who has gone through this who has not been very excited about it and felt that it was the future of medicine," he said.

Financial viability

Dr Friedman also questioned the financial viability of carrying out the procedure.

"If you scanned everybody in the United States, you would pick up a lot of cancers - you would pick up a lot of abnormalities that could help people.

Scanner BBC
Scanner revealed only minor problems for Peter Bowes
"But what is the societal cost, what is the individual cost and what additional burdens are you placing on people who have potential abnormalities?

"Some people can't handle it - they are psychologically vulnerable.

"It caters to the American mind set of 'let's do something that's easy and quick'. It caters to the psychological weakness of the American people."

But Betty Kelepecz, who has been given a clean bill of health after the removal of her cancerous kidney, dismissed the debate in the medical profession.

"There is no controversy from my side," she said. "It saved my life."

Dr Edwin van Beek, an expert in radiology at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said people should not be exposed to the ionising radiation associated with scans unless it was absolutely necessary as this carried a health risk in itself.

His view was echoed by Dr Dave Harvey, a consultant radiologist, who said: "An individual undegoing this examination receives much more radiation than they would from all other sources for several years - they might as well take a trip to Chernobyl."

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