By Patrick Winderl
Several months after two state-of-the-art imaging machines were installed at Northern Montana Hospital, doctors and administrators say the new technology has proven well worth the cost.
"We live in a rural area, but we need the technology or people go lacking," said John Rosenbaum, vice president of professional services and imaging manager for the hospital.
Northern Montana Hospital was the first medical facility in the state to purchase the new generation of equipment, though several have since followed its lead, hospital spokeswoman Kathie Newell said.
"Blinding speed, that's the terminology I'd have to give it," Rosenbaum said. "It's a proven technology. It's where everyone will end up the next year or so. This is where it's at."
The two units the hospital purchased were an Mx8000 IDT computed tomography or CT scan and an Infinion 1.5 T magnetic resonance imaging or MRI unit. Both machines are built by Philips Medical Systems of Plano, Texas. The hospital previously had both MRI and CT machines, but opted to upgrade to the newest and most sophisticated models available.
CT scans are produced by passing X-rays through the body. Detectors send the information to a computer, where it is translated into very thin cross-sections of the body, or "slices." The slices range in size from 1 to 10 millimeters. The new machine capitalizes on multislice technology, which can generate up to 16 slices at the same time.
"In the past, it took at least an hour to do a scan," said George Abbott, a CT specialist with Philips Medical Systems. "As a consequence, not too many could be done in a day. Now, the multislice technology allows us to do the same amount of work 16 times faster than with traditional coverage. We can cover a larger area and do it more quickly than before."
MRI scanning is a different process that uses a strong magnet and a radio pulse to produce very accurate images of the human body. The new MRI machine generates images more quickly than the previous machine thanks to a magnet that is much stronger than its predecessor.
Having the capability to perform a scan in just a few minutes greatly increases the chances of survival for victims of severe injuries, Rosenbaum said.
"With our trauma patients, time is very, very crucial. With the new machines, there's much less time involved getting images, which means we can diagnose the patient faster," Rosenbaum said.
Having an MRI machine that is so efficient means its versatility is also increased. A prime example of this is its ability to be used for angiography, or the study of blood vessels, Rosenbaum said.
Vascular imaging has emerged in the past decade as one of the most important medical tools available to doctors, he added.
"Because vascular problems occur in such a large percentage of the population, our ability to quickly and accurately image them is very, very important," he said.
Previously, doctors were forced to outfit patients with catheters and inject dye into their bloodstreams. Then a series of X-rays had to be taken to produce the desired image. The new MRI technology can achieve the same effect in a fraction of the time and with little discomfort to the patient.
"It allows us to be less invasive," Abbott said. "That's probably the most important aspect to all of this."
The two machines have a variety of uses, including orthopedic imaging and assessing stroke damage, neurological problems, trauma injuries, and malignancies.
Each machine has its own specific areas of expertise, Rosenbaum said. For instance, CT scanning has evolved as one of the most effective tools used to evaluate trauma victims, he said.
"Certain conditions require certain techniques," Abbott added. "It's like playing golf. You wouldn't tee off with a sand wedge just like you wouldn't hit out of the sand with a driver. You have specific tools for specific purposes."
In addition to being faster than its predecessors, the new MRI also has another distinct attribute - its size. The unit is small, less than half the size of the previous model. Patients can be placed in the machine feet first, and have their body scanned in sections - a huge benefit for people with claustrophobia.
An estimated 10 percent of the population suffers from claustrophobia, Rosenbaum said, making the new machine more attractive to patients.
"You can select the area you want to examine," he said. "It's totally safe and noninvasive."
About 250 MRIs have been performed with the new machine since it was installed in April, Rosenbaum said, about 80 per month. The CT is used about 200 times a month, he added.
"Speed really makes a difference," he said. "We've done many more than we have previously."
The new machines cost a total of $2.6 million, making them the most expensive pieces of equipment in the hospital's inventory.
"It's a major investment. Anytime you replace imaging equipment, it's going to cost you," Rosenbaum said. "It