Medical imaging tests are often assumed to be one of the factors driving health care spending up. But new research shows that physicians are ordering diagnostic imaging exams on an increasingly lower rate of their interactions with Medicare patients.

The study, conducted by the Harvey L. Neiman Health Policy Institute and published in the July issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology (JACR), utilizes a breadth of available evidence well beyond previous studies on imaging costs. Instead of looking solely at Medicare spending data, the Neiman Institute research uses Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data collected by the federal government, which allows an analysis of physician decisions and actions during patient visits.

This data shows that the number of physician visits by patients 65 years of age or older resulting in an imaging exam is consistently trending downward, from 12.8% in 2003 to 10.6% in 2011. Similarly, Medicare spending per enrollee for imaging has declined from $418 in 2006 to $390 in 2011.