MRI Safety Week, observed the last week of July every year, is meant to increase awareness and understanding of the safety issues unique to MRI scanning. The timing of this effort is not random–it is meant to coincide with the most well-known MRI accident in the USA. In 2001, a child died in an MRI scanner in New York when an oxygen tank brought into the scan room was violently drawn into the scanner by the machine’s powerful magnetic forces. This tragedy forced the medical community to address MRI safety in a more organized and structured manner than it ever had before.
Here at Cincinnati Children’s, our MRI Safety Program uses a number screening tools to identify possible risks to our patients and employees, taking steps to minimize those risks and still provide needed care for our patients. The program has been effective; we have not had a serious safety event in MRI in over 20 years. But all of us who work in this area recognize danger is always near, and something unexpected can occur that could put our patients in danger. This constant level of alertness is probably the most important component of our safety program.
Experts in the field of MRI safety often express frustration that the number of reported safety incidents in MRI has increased at a faster rate than the number of MRI scanners, despite the fact we know that incidents are generally under-reported. To me, this is not surprising at all. It was not long ago that getting an MRI scan was seen as a rare and unusual medical intervention. In recent years, the number of disease processes we can effectively study with MRI has exploded. Whole generations of physicians have been working in an era in which MRI scanning is always an option, and the test has become, for lack of a better term, routine. When things become routine, we sometimes forget how dangerous they can be. We all experience this when we get in our cars and go hurtling down the highway. At some level we recognize that this is a life-threatening action, but the risk is outweighed by the need to get somewhere and the fact that we do it routinely. This same calculation happens every day in the MRI suite.
So for those of us who work in MRI and worry about the dangers, it is important that we communicate our knowledge and concerns to every patient, family member, and hospital worker who comes into our department. Hopefully, this state of preparedness does not negatively affect the experience of you or your child, but rather keeps you safe and protected while we try to answer questions about your health.
Written by Dr. Blaise Jones, Medical Director, MRI