British Columbia·CBC Investigates

Ultra Life body scans called 'fear mongering' by doctors

A California-based company offering "body scans" to B.C. patients is sparking the ire of medical professionals who call the practice "fear mongering" for profit.

Pamphlets offer a menu of 'preventative care' that can 'save your life!', but experts say beware

Colour ultra sounds like this one of a human heart, are offered for a price. (University of Montreal)

A California-based company offering "body scans," or colour ultrasounds, is luring B.C. patients over the border and sparking the ire of medical professionals who call the practice "fear mongering" for profit.

Thousands of yellow flyers distributed in South Surrey and White Rock read: "Early Warning ... A BODY SCAN Can Save Your Life! 

It's an appealing idea that somehow there is a magical machine that can look into our bodies and anticipate illness. Unfortunately it's not true.- Dr. Galt Wilson, B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons

"This kind of material is fear-mongering at its very worst. It feeds the fears of vulnerable, elderly people in a manner that is quite unsavoury, really," said Dr. Charles Webb, president of Doctors of B.C.

"Elderly people deserve better than profiteering on their angst at a time and place in their lives when the anxiety that this causes is unnecessary."

Ultra Life Inc. offers a mobile service in border towns like Blaine, Wash., and distributes yellow flyers that look similar to take-out menus, offering everything from heart to deep-leg vein scans for $60 to $500. The company has attracted attention in Quebec and Ontario with its flyer blitzes. 

Body scans were set to be offered in Washington on Dec. 11 and 12, until the company told CBC their technician broke a hip, so scans are being rescheduled into January.

Flyers like this appeared in mailboxes in Surrey and White Rock, B.C. (CBC)

Body scans appealing to seniors

Some seniors say body scans are appealing.

"We have to realize that the Canadian health care system is not what it should be, and I can understand people falling for this," said Ramona Kaptyn of the White Rock chapter chairperson of C.A.R.P., formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

"I myself have had experiences with the health care system here, where I had to go out and get my own MRI because my doctor wouldn't send me."

Ultra Life Inc. officials argue they offer a much-wanted service that can alleviate line-ups and help prevent health problems, but doctors disagree.

Dr. Charles Webb, president of Doctors of B.C. says: "This kind of material is fear-mongering at its very worst." (CBC)

"It's an appealing idea that somehow there is a magical machine that can look into our bodies and anticipate illness. Unfortunately it's not true," said Dr. Galt Wilson, deputy registrar for the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons.

He urges people who get flyers or other offers like this to "throw them in the recycling."

Medical professionals say colour ultra sounds have limited diagnostic use, and the results of a scan can cause people anxiety, and can translate into a myriad of unnecessary, expensive follow-up tests once they return to B.C. with unnecessary concerns about their health.

B.C.'s Health Minister discourages residents from using the services.

"Going to a hotel and having someone use an ultrasound machine and give you some information that could potentially cause huge anxiety for you is, I think, a disaster," said Terry Lake.

Scans offer 'peace of mind'

Ultra Life Inc. manager George Graham says all the criticism is unwarranted. 

He says the scans offer "peace of mind" and allow people to use "preventative" methods to avoid health issues. 

Customer reactions are "all positive," Graham told CBC, though he said he knows doctors dislike the scans.

Health Minister Terry Lake calls body scans a potential 'disaster." (CBC)

"Think if you were a doctor — look at it from their standpoint. There is a medical component, and there is a business component to everything," said Graham.

When asked about a 2007 Associated Press news report about how Ultra Life Inc. was ordered to stop operating in Montana after a woman was told she had a normal uterus, despite her ovaries having been removed years before, Graham admitted there was one mix-up.

"But that was eight years ago," he said, adding that medical mix-ups happen in hospitals all the time.

He said in 25 years of U.S. business, there was only one complaint, and that did not result in any action.

"That would be the only complaint from anybody, anytime, ever. We have an A+ rating," he said.

About the Author

Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.

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