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A Virtual Colonoscopy Is Faster, Cheaper + Less Invasive — But Is It Right for You? MDs Weigh In

This newer colorectal cancer screening takes just 10 to 15 minutes

If you’re like us, a colonoscopy is not at the top of your list of fun things to do. Still, it’s an important screening to help you and your doctor stay on top of your colon health and spot any potential warning signs of colorectal cancer. But what if you had the option to bypass the traditional test with a cheaper, less invasive screening? That’s where a virtual colonoscopy comes in.

Recently, billionaire investor and Cost Plus Drugs founder Mark Cuban raved to Fortune magazine about the benefits of a virtual colonoscopy. This form of colorectal cancer screening might be the way of the future. But how exactly does a virtual colonoscopy work, and is it right for you? Keep reading to hear what top doctors have to say about virtual colonoscopies.

What is a virtual colonoscopy?

Regular colonoscopies are a routine, if unpleasant, part of middle and old age. This traditional screener for colorectal cancer and precancerous growths (polyps) involves examining the inside of your colon using a scope with a tiny camera attached. And yes, that camera gets inside your colon by being inserted through the anus while you’re sedated.

A virtual colonoscopy, on the other hand, offers the chance to stay on top of your colorectal health without some of the unpleasantness of a traditional colonoscopy.

“Instead of a camera, virtual colonoscopies use CT scans to take pictures of your colon,” explains Raj Dasgupta, MD, Chief Medical Advisor for Fortune Recommends Health. “They’re less invasive than traditional ones, since they don’t need to stick a scope in your colon. Plus, there is no sedation needed, so you can get back to your day right after.”

A CT scan requires you to lie on your back while a scanner takes X-ray images of your abdomen. When used to screen for colorectal cancer and small growths, it should only take about 10 to 15 minutes. That means you can get your colonoscopy done and get right back to your life with minimal interruption.

How effective is a virtual colonoscopy?

A virtual colonoscopy might be recommended as one type of colorectal cancer screening, but it has its limitations, says Austin Chiang, MD, gastroenterologist and Chief Medical Officer of Endoscopy at Medtronic.

“Virtual colonoscopies are not as good at detecting smaller growths before they develop into larger problems, which is the entire purpose of screening,” Dr. Chiang explains. “Unlike a colonoscopy, the scan does not allow for the removal of precancerous polyps on the spot. That’s why a colonoscopy still remains the gold standard.”

The American Cancer Society recommends getting a virtual colonoscopy every five years after age 45. That’s in comparison to every 10 years recommended for a traditional colonoscopy. And if the CT scan “finds anything concerning, you will still need a regular colonoscopy to address the issue,” says Dr. Dasgupta. For those reasons, a virtual colonoscopy may be most effective when used in tandem with traditional procedures.

A woman undergoing a CT scan machine, which can be used for a virtual colonoscopy

How much does the procedure cost?

Cuban touts virtual colonoscopies for their cost-effectiveness. Healthcare Bluebook puts the fair price of a virtual colonoscopy at roughly less than a third of the cost of a traditional procedure.

That said, pricing can vary widely. Rates depend on your zip code, health insurance copay and whether or not your insurance requires prior authorization for the procedure. Many major insurance providers cover the procedure, although Medicare does not. It’s best to confirm the pricing with your healthcare provider and insurance before committing to a virtual colonoscopy.

Preparing for a virtual colonoscopy

Although the procedure itself is much quicker and easier than a traditional colonoscopy, virtual screenings still require some prep work.

“Preparation for virtual and traditional colonoscopies is pretty much the same, with similar colon cleansing procedures,” says Dr. Dasgupta. “You still have to do the uncomfortable and inconvenient bowel preparation either way, which is no one’s idea of a good time.”

Which screening is right for you?

A virtual colonoscopy may save you time and money, and it’s less invasive than a traditional colonoscopy. However, it isn’t as good at catching smaller and precancerous polyps. And it needs to be done more frequently than a traditional procedure.

“Knowing your family history of colorectal cancer is extremely important for your doctor to recommend the right screening and prevention strategies,” says Dr. Dasgupta. “It’s always best to talk to your doctor to figure out the best plan for you.”

For more ways to improve your digestive health:

The Gut-Brain Connection Explains Why Stress Hurts Your Stomach

The Secret Weapon for Menopause? Your Gut Health Might Surprise You — And Help You Feel Your Best

Top MDs Reveal the 10 Best Foods to Eat For Gut Health

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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