Daily Briefing

Celebrities are abuzz about full-body MRI scans. Health experts are not.


Among celebrities and influencers, the latest health trend is getting full-body MRI scans to search for early signs of disease, including cancer, aneurysms, and more. However, health experts caution that full-body scans may not be necessary — or even beneficial — for most people, Dani Blum and Callie Holtermann write for the New York Times

Influencers flock to full-body MRI scans

According to Blum and Holtermann, several new companies are offering patients whole-body MRI scans to help them identify diseases such as cancer early on. One of the most well-known of these companies is Prenuvo, which offers an hour-long MRI session for $2,499.

Prenuvo has quickly risen in prominence largely due to promotion from high-profile celebrities and influencers. Some celebrities who have posted about getting an MRI scan from Prenuvo include reality TV star Kim Kardashian, TV host Maria Menounos, fashion designer Zac Posen, and model Lily Aldridge.

Although the company doesn't offer paid promotions, it does provide free scans to high-profile individuals in the wellness and other industries "in exchange for an honest review if they feel like it," said Prenuvo founder and CEO Andrew Lacy. Some individuals may also receive discount codes to share with their followers on social media.

Prenuvo's increased visibility online has also prompted regular individuals to book scans, even if they feel healthy overall. For example, Jennifer Jones, a 44-year-old woman from St. Louis, first heard about Prenuvo on social media and decided to get a scan partly because her sister has lung cancer.

Because full-body MRI scans are typically not covered by insurance, patients who want to get them have to pay out of pocket. However, Jones said that the scan is worth the price compared to the potential costs, both financial and otherwise, of a potential future illness. "I would literally do anything to have preventive options," she said.

Health experts are more skeptical of the benefits

According to Rebecca Smith-Bindman, director of the Radiology Outcomes Research Laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, it's "completely understandable why you'd want to find cancer early," but full-body MRI scans aren't the only way people can detect cancer early on. Recommended cancer screenings can also detect early cases and are generally covered by insurance.

Full-body MRI scans for patients who don't need them may be associated with a higher risk of false positives. In a 2019 meta-analysis, researchers analyzed six studies out of 12 with complete data and found that 16% of patients who underwent scans received false positives. Around 32% of patients had a scan that detected an abnormality, but it's not clear if these abnormalities were clinically relevant.  

"[T]here's just no evidence to support" healthy people undergoing full-body MRI scans, even if they have a family history of cancer, said Larry Norton, a breast oncologist and the medical director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Similarly, the American College of Radiology in April released a statement saying that there was "no documented evidence that total body screening is cost-efficient or effective in prolonging life." The organization also raised concerns that the scans could lead to "nonspecific findings" that required expensive follow-up.

According to Smith-Bindman, preventive screenings will likely detect early cancer cases, but not every case will develop into a serious disease. This means that some patients may undergo "major surgery and radiation and chemotherapy" for an early cancer that may not have needed it, she said.

Although a small number of patients from detecting and treating an early case of cancer will have benefit, "the number of benign tumors so outnumbers the number of aggressive tumors," Smith-Bindman said.

Additional tests, such as pet CT scans, may also lead to potentially unnecessary radiation exposure. "How many cancers will we cause from the radiation that comes from the PET/CT after doing the full body M.R.I.?" Smith-Bindman said.

Overall, Michael Pignone, chair of internal medicine at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, said he recommends patients follow the recommended schedule for health screenings or other forms of preventive medicine rather than get full-body MRI scans. Extensive research has helped determine the most effective screening tests, and they are recommended for the general population, he said.

Advisory Board's imaging resources

To learn more about imaging and how the market is changing, check out these Advisory Board resources:

(Blum/Holtermann, New York Times, 9/19)


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