Some major health insurers, including United Healthcare, CIGNA and BlueCross BlueShield, have begun covering virtual colonoscopy, said Dr. Judy Yee, an associate professor and vice chairwoman of radiology and biomedical imaging at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief of radiology at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
In fact, when President Obama underwent his first-ever colon cancer screening last year, he chose virtual colonoscopy, Yee said.
People who have a virtual colonoscopy still have to undergo the same preparation that they would for a normal colonoscopy, in which powerful laxatives are used to clear out the colon -- a process that many, if not most, describe as unpleasant at best.
But anesthesia is not needed for the procedure, which means they can be back to their regular routine immediately afterward.
"It's a less invasive test," Yee said. "You don't have to introduce a 6-foot-long probe into the colon through the rectum."
Virtual colonoscopy does have its drawbacks, however.
For one thing, tissue samples cannot be taken, nor can a polyp be removed, during a virtual colonoscopy. If doctors believe they've located a polyp, then the patient has to have a second procedure -- a normal colonoscopy -- to confirm the diagnosis and have the polyp removed. That could be done on the spot, thus requiring only one procedure, if the person were having a regular colonoscopy.
Also, virtual colonoscopy may be a less accurate test. It produces very clear images, but experts say they're not as detailed as what can be seen in a conventional procedure.
Studies have found that virtual colonoscopy is not a reliable tool for locating polyps less than 5 millimeters in size or smaller, which constitute about 80 percent of pre-cancerous polyps in the colon, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
The test also p
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