Photo by Chung Chow
A Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan, better known as an MRI, allows physicians to see what’s happening inside your body in three dimensions using only a magnet, radio waves and computers.
From there, highly-skilled doctors interpret the slice-by-slice pictures the computer generates. MRI scans are part of the menu of imaging techniques available to doctors today.
Each technique has strengths and weaknesses. For instance, X-rays offer two-dimensional, shadow pictures while MRIs offer three-dimensional images of not just bones but soft tissue as well.
Among the different kinds of medical scans, only Ultrasound and MRI use no ionizing radiation. Ultrasound uses sound we can’t hear to create echo pictures, similar to radar. MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to see what’s happening under the skin.
A doctor decides which type of imaging is best.
An MRI might be best to find a tear in soft tissue or some kinds of tumours. For a bone problem, an X-ray might be the better choice.
“Fractures definitely don’t need an MRI,” says Brian Di Stefano, CT and MRI supervisor at Richmond Hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Centre.
There are two MRI units in our community.
The MRI unit at Richmond Hospital does all the normal scans in addition to providing special, bariatric services. That means their scanner donut has a larger hole in it to accommodate people who weigh up to 450 pounds [approximately 200 Kg]. “We’re the go-to scanner for a lot of these bariatric patients,” says Di Stefano.
The other MRI scanner is owned and operated by Priority MRI. While it can offer a shorter wait for non-emergency scans, they are not covered by MSP.
Dr. Syed Haider, managing director, says there’s special pricing for seniors, veterans and students to make them more affordable.
For those of us who got our medical education watching ER or Grey’s Anatomy, what’s different in real life?
According to Di Stefano, doctors don’t do the scan; highly trained technicians do.
It takes about 30 to 45 minutes instead of seconds, and a radiologist has to review the images, write a report and send it to your physician before you get the results.
Richmond Hospital has been able to drop MRI wait times for non-emergency patients by hiring more staff so the scanner can operate even outside normal business hours.
With the private pay MRI, you will still need a medical referral.
“You can’t walk in off the street and say, ‘Here’s my money and I need an MRI exam right now.’ It doesn’t work that way anywhere in Canada. You must be referred by family physician or specialist,” says Haider. At that point, he says, an appointment can be booked within a day or two. It then takes a similar amount of time for the radiologist to write the report.
Unlike a private scanner, a hospital-based scanner takes the patients with the greatest medical need first.
“A knee scan can take half an hour to 45 minutes to do,” Di Stefano says. “Now throw in an ICU patient, vented, who has 17 different lines running to them. You’ve got to safely move that patient from their ICU bed to an MRI-safe table, run all these lines through a little hole in the wall so pumps stay out other room. The half hour scan it takes for a walking, talking patient turns into an hour and a half or two hours for a very sick person.”