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Tehnician Anna Terbarsegyan takes an ultrasound of Cynthia Impens who survived a heart attack and now has semi-annual appointments with her cardiologist.Evan Yee/ The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons is warning that cut-rate, preventative body scans offered in the United States could lead to health risks and higher costs for the provincial health-care system.

Patients who get the scans may visit their family doctors for follow-up on benign medical abnormalities discovered during the tests - a process that could hurt the patient in the long run, said Jack Burak, deputy registrar at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia.

"The chances of finding something significant are so low, you'd be generating a lot of unnecessary second opinions or further investigations associated with their own risks to the patient," he said, adding that such examinations have the potential to drive up costs.

The warning comes as California-based Ultra Life Body Scan advertises bargain-basement tests in local Canadian media outlets promoting preventative body scans that "can save your life."

Mobile scanning clinics will be in Point Roberts and Bellingham, both U.S. border cities in Washington, in August.

A whole body scan costs $500 (U.S.), or patients can opt for selective tests ranging from $150 for a heart scan to $45 for an aorta artery scan.

The clinics attract as many Canadians as Americans during their quarterly visits to the region, manager Warren Green said.

But British Columbians heading south for the tests do it against the advice of many physicians and Health Canada.

Health Canada recommends that diagnostic ultrasound be restricted to cases where the medical benefit outweighs foreseeable risk.

Dr. Burak said there are few medical benefits to the test, especially for asymptomatic patients, and the risks of a seemingly benign technology such as ultrasound are still unknown.

"The whole medical model is based upon never ordering any investigation or tests or prescribing medication for any patient where the risks outweigh the benefits," he said, adding that the proper route to get any sort of medical test is through your physician.

The tests available in Washington are designed specifically for prevention, Mr. Green said.

"[The patients]want to try and test things before they have to go to a doctor, before they get the symptoms."

Mr. Green said the tests show conditions from benign abnormalities like reversed organs to life-threatening aneurisms, and are interpreted by a licensed doctor. Patients receive results in the mail in under two weeks.

Dr. Burak suggested that Canadians who head south research who is interpreting their scans.

"What certainty do you have that this is a high-level, high-quality facility?" he said. "There are certain risks for the potential of substandard testing as well as perhaps reporting that does not meet the stringent requirements we have in British Columbia."

Private medical clinics in British Columbia also offer preventative scans, but patients must be referred by their family doctor, and clinics must meet the standards set out by the college.