Over the last decade, advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology have produced vast improvements in quality. Better images can translate into better, more accurate diagnoses by physicians — and often better outcomes for patients. Despite improvements in imagery and outcomes, the procedure itself has never been a walk in the park.
In conventional MRI machines, patients must lie on a table inside the narrow, tunnel-like opening of the magnet, sometimes for an extended period of time. They are required to remain very still and have only a few inches of room on any side. Combine these factors with the scanner's loud, repetitive noise and the stress of illness, and you have the recipe for a high-anxiety reaction, even from the most even-keeled patients.
Open MRIs are designed without side walls to relieve claustrophobia commonly associated with the procedure, but even then, many patients still find the process uncomfortable. Others can tolerate the scan only with the aid of a sedative. However, a new audio-video virtual reality system is transforming the MRI experience.
"It's the perfect addition to an MRI machine," says Dr. Rafael Figueroa, medical director at East Jefferson Imaging Center (EJIC). "It couples well with our high-field open magnet, which already decreases the feeling of claustrophobia."
The system has a two-way communication headset with headphones and goggles. The goggles focus the patient's line of sight on an LCD screen projection. Although the goggles only protrude a few inches from the face, a patient sees a television program or movie that appears to be projected on a 60-inch screen at a distance of 5 feet. A noise-canceling headset allows the patient to hear the soundtrack, not the MRI machine.
"Once you have the goggles on, we test them to make sure they fit correctly, and we adjust the depth perception so you can see the screen properly," says radiology operations manager Jeff Edge. "Since there is a screen in each lens of the goggles, it takes a moment for your eyes to adapt. Then, we can either turn on a television program or the patient can bring a DVD and watch a movie. Usually, by the time we actually position the patient within the machine, they're already so focused on whatever they're watching that they don't even know they're in the MRI machine."
The headset is fitted with a microphone so the radiology technologist and patient can speak to one another at any time during the procedure. If the patient has a question, feels anxious or just wants to change the channel, he or she is always in communication with the technologist. In case of emergency or if the patient becomes overwhelmed, there is a panic button attached to the headset, which patients can hold.
"Sometimes just knowing they have the power to press the button at any time is enough to put a patient at ease," Edge says.
According to Figueroa, reviews of the new technology have been overwhelmingly positive. "We've had some patients that didn't want to go in to the MRI at first," he says. "Then they practiced with the goggles lying down and felt much better. Their minds were no longer focused on going into the tunnel. It's as if they were at home in bed.
"It's really something unique, and no other hospital or imaging center in this area has it. It's the other piece of the equation for MRI. We've always had amazing imaging technology, and now we can offer entertainment and a more pleasant patient experience."