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The role of imaging in Graves' disease: a cost-effectiveness analysis.

According to many guidelines, scintigraphy remains the first suggested diagnostic procedure in hyperthyroid patients in spite of the widespread availability of ultrasounds. The aim of this study was to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of sonography versus scintigraphy in the management of Graves's disease, and to assess ultrasound features suggesting cancer in detecting thyroid nodules. Among 1470 hyperthyroid patients evaluated in our department from 2002 to 2005, 426 (29%) had Graves' disease: echographic and scintigraphic features were not suggestive of GD in 20/426 (4.8%) and 11/426 (2.6%) patients, respectively (p=0.763), even if one of the two procedures was almost always diagnostic. Ultrasound identified 68/426 (16%) patients with a concomitant solid lesion, while scintigraphy detected only 9/426 (2.1%) "cold" nodules (p<0.001). Thyroid cancer was diagnosed in 30/68 (47.7%) patients. Malignancy presented at ultrasound investigation blurred margins (26.7% versus 15.8%), microcalcifications (33.3% versus 28.9%) and an anteroposterior and transverse diameter ratio>or=1 (73.3% versus 71.1%); more frequently than benign nodules, but this was not statistically significant. The total cost to obtain a diagnosis by ultrasound was euro14645.34 (euro13312.5 for echography+euro1332.84 for scintigraphy in the 29 patients "negative" at echographic evaluation for GD) versus euro19922.71 by scintigraphy (euro19578.96 for scan+euro343.75 for ultrasounds in the 11 patients "negative" at scintigraphy). Our data show no difference in terms of diagnosis between sonography and scintigraphy. Indeed, scintigraphy was less sensitive in detecting nodules (often of malignant nature) than ultrasound, and, moreover, with a consequent increase of the direct cost of nodule management when scintigraphy is the first line procedure. In conclusion, according to our results, we suggest that ultrasounds with color-Doppler evaluation should be performed as first step in all hyperthyroid patients, and that scintigraphic examination should be limited only to the uncommon cases, where physician's observation, laboratory assays and/or ultrasounds are not diagnostic.

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