Imaging scanners will help patients

By Johnny Kampis
October 03, 2002

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Lee Ann Armstrong, left, watches as Jamie Mattison shows her the workings of an Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, as Tamila Tolbert and Kevin Rudd demonstrate how to place a patient inside an MRI in the next room.

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TUSCALOOSA | DCH Regional Medical Center plans to add two new imaging scanners at its Tuscaloosa and Northport hospitals that will reduce patient travel and increase the speed of diagnosis.

Patients of Northport Medical Center must now travel to DCH if they have an injury that needs to be diagnosed using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner.

DCH, which operates Northport Medical Center, plans to fill that void by adding an MRI machine in Northport in June. The hospital is having to do some juggling to make it happen.

The state's certificate of need law requires healthcare organizations to show a strong need before adding expensive equipment. This, in effect, prevents an arms race among hospitals that could drive up the cost of healthcare.

Donna Marrero, vice president of outpatient/ancillary services for DCH, said despite the number of visits from Northport patients, the hospital wasn't able to show the/srequired 1,500 scans to add another MRI for one of the two hospitals. So DCH decided to trade in one of its three MRI scanners for a computerized tomorgraphy, or CT, scanner.

That move will allow the hospital to have two MRI scanners at DCH and add the first at Northport Medical Center.

"The main issue is transporting patients who are sick enough to be in the hospital," Marrero said. "That concerns us when we have that many patients who need a service and we can't provide it in house."

CT and MRI scanners are both used to produce images of parts of the body, but through different methods. An MRI utilizes a strong magnet and radio frequencies to produce an image. The CT is similar to a x-ray in that it shoots radiation through the body to produce an image.

An MRI makes better images of soft tissue while a CT produces clearer images of bones. For example, a doctor would likely request a CT of the spine, but an MRI of the spinal cord.

Northport Medical Center is now in the process of lining the room that will contain the MRI with copper to counteract the power of the magnet. Barry Ingle, manager of imaging services at the hospital, said he hopes the work will be complete in mid December with the goal of an operational MRI in place next June.

Ingle said the scanner will be 40 percent faster than the ones now in operation at DCH. It will reduce table time for patients from 15 to 20 minutes to 10 to 12 minutes.

"That should help reduce problems with patients with claustrophobia," Ingle said.

Marrero said the MRI will cost $2 million, with room renovation costs of $500,000. Two x-ray technicians currently at Northport Medical Center are now being trained on an MRI at DCH and a third person will also be hired. Annual salary and benefits costs will exceed $150,000.

"It's a sizable investment for us," Marrero said.

Meanwhile, the new CT scanner at DCH should be ready in mid November. The room that once contained the trade-in MRI in outpatient services will be stripped of its copper lining and lead will be put in its place.

Jim Smith, director of imaging services at DCH, said the hospital will move its CT scanner used for emergencies to the outpatient center and the new, more powerful CT scanner will be used in emergency to help diagnose injuries such as those resulting in car wrecks.

The new scanner will reduce scanning time from three to four minutes to about a minute.

"Where that really is important is in trauma patients because they could be bleeding internally," Smith said.

He describes the changes as a "win, win" for both hospitals. He said that while DCH now conducts about 10,000 MRI scans a year, that volume will likely go up because so much time is spent coordinating visits from Northport patients.

"Right now we have about a week backlog of outpatients waiting to get an appointment," he said.

Reach Johnny Kampis at johnny.kampis@tuscaloosanews.com or at 345-0505, Ext. 277


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