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Good For Your Health, Good For Your Wallet

U.S. taxpayers are getting more than they pay for from a federal research program designed to ensure accuracy in measurements of radioactive drugs for diagnosing or treating disease, according to a new economic study.

Radiopharmaceutical standards produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, have a benefit to cost ratio of 97 to 1, says the study, Economic Evaluation of Radiopharmaceutical Research at NIST, by University of North Carolina economics professor Albert Link.

Using conservative assumptions and economic data since 1990, Link estimated that the NIST radiopharmaceutical program has cost taxpayers $2.4 million and produced benefits worth $236.2 million. The benefits represent money saved by patients and drug manufacturers.

"This research, in the opinion of manufacturers and in the opinion of medical experts today, has been invaluable," according to the study.

"The NIST radiopharmaceutical research program is one of our most successful NIST/industry collaborations in that it meets an important industry need and, at the same time, serves to increase public confidence in the quality of diagnostic and therapeutic pharmaceuticals," says Bert Coursey, chief of the NIST Ionizing Radiation Division. Coursey presented the report today to scientists gathered at NIST for the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Council on Ionizing Radiation Measurements and Standards.

Radiopharmaceutical standards produced at NIST in Gaithersburg, Md., help medical clinics deliver accurate doses of radioactive drugs for treating or diagnosing disease. The standards, sold to drug manufacturers through the NIST Standard Reference Materials Program, provide samples of radioactive isotopes whose values have been measured
with high precision and accuracy. Drug manufacturers use these Standard Reference Materials to evaluate the accuracy of their own measurements and methods.

NIST radiopharmaceutical standards save patients money by eliminating the need to repeat tests and treatments. Without NIST radiopharmaceutical standards, patients would have to repeat 1 percent of diagnostic procedures and 3 percent of therapeutic procedures due to decreased accuracy in radioactive drug dosages.

Without NIST radiopharmaceutical standards, the accuracy of radioactive drugs would decrease by 10 to 15 percent, according to medical experts interviewed for the study. Clinics would have to re-do 1 percent of all radiation-based diagnostic procedures due to low doses and unreadable test results. These procedures cost between $500 and $750 each. Approximately 9 million procedures are performed annually. The study estimates savings of $45 million due to NIST radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostic procedures.

Patients also save money by not having to repeat therapeutic treatments based on radioactive isotopes. The study estimates that 3 percent of all therapeutic procedures would have to be re-done if there were no NIST standards. With 1 million procedures annually at costs of $1,500 to $2,500, the study estimates savings of $45 million annually.

The combined savings to patients on both diagnostic and therapeutic procedures is $90 million annually. The study did not include the costs of health problems that might result from overdoses of radioisotopes since such consequences would not be immediately evident.

Manufacturers also save money by not having to develop standards and resolve measurement disputes themselves. Manufacturers interviewed for the study estimated that it would take five to 10 years to establish a private standards-setting body if NIST stopped making radiopharmaceutical standards. Estimated costs during this transition period would be at least $1.3 million per year.

NIST (then known as the National Bureau of Standards) established its radiopharmaceutical research program in the early 1970s in response to industry concerns about the lack of standards. To date, NIST has produced 28 radiopharmaceutical standards.

As a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.

Released November 12, 1997, Updated November 27, 2017