GERMAN engineered, with sleek white bodywork, twice as powerful, and a snip at £1.2million. The latest arrival at the RJAH Orthopaedic Hospital may sound like some new breed of supercar, but is in fact a groundbreaking new scanner, and the Advertizer were invited along for a road test.
Thanks to television, we are all familiar with MRI scanners, many of us have been in one, but to find out what actually goes on inside those imposing white tunnels, the Advertizer met up with one of the people responsible for the new machine, Diagnostics Manager Eric Hughes.
"Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a way of mapping the water molecules," he explained, "Unlike x-rays it's basically a picture of everything except the bones, so the tissue appears white in the images, the bones in black, and you are able to see the soft tissue and muscular structure in incredible detail."
These scans are so precise that thousands of pictures can be taken of a part of your body, like the spine, each effectively a sliced cross section and each just a fraction of a millimetre in thickness. These are then used to visualise joints and cartilage, helping detect the staging of bone cancer, or identifying spinal disorders and sports injuries. More powerful
Eric says that what many people don't realise is that MRI is still in its relative infancy and while x-rays have been around for just over a hundred years, MRI has only been with us since the 1970s, and he recalls being introduced to one of the first scanners shortly after completing his training.
The Orthopaedic's new scanner is at the cutting edge of the technology, not least in terms of power. The giant 3Tesla magnet at its heart is twice as powerful as the 1.5Telsa magnet of its predecessor and those found powering almost all other scanners in the country.
But why does this make it better?
"It gives a more powerful signal, which in normal photography would be like having more light," explains Eric, "In a normal camera, more light means more information and a better quality picture."
The similarity with a normal camera ends there however. Normal cameras do not take two days to power up, or a day to switch off, and Eric tells us that far from being a 'point and shoot' affair, using an MRI machine is a constant learning process, trying out new techniques and sequences, constantly refining their images.
As MRI does not have the accumulative side effects of other imaging such as x-ray, the department's staff themselves take it in turns to lie in the machine for up to half an hour at a time to test new sequences and say that having experienced the machine for themselves allows them to better care for their patients. Even so, it's a task made more pleasant by some of the new scanner's more cosmetic features.
"The room itself is much more inviting," says Superintendent Janet Gardener "There's a calming lit mural on the wall and the machine itself has coloured light panels which create a more relaxing mood."
More importantly though, Janet explains that the diameter of the machine has been widened by 10cm. This may not sound much, but in real terms feels far less claustrophobic than its predecessors and also allows larger patients to use the scanner.
From the sound-proofed and shielded control centre where Janet and her staff monitor the patients, you can hear the music being piped into their ear-defender headphones. The benefits of these soon become apparent when they switch the speakers over to the room's external microphone, allowing us to hear the machine in operation.
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To say it is loud is an understatement. It's as though a room full of men have been set to work with jackhammers, but patients emerging from the scanner tell me that the headphones and music are so effective that those jackhammers at least sound as though they are in the next street.
The move to this more powerful system has been made possible by the fundraising efforts of the League of Friends who raised £400,000 towards its £1.7million cost, but while MRI is perfectly safe, the more powerful magnets are now without their hazards.
Jewellery, watches and pacemakers are all affected by the machine and to give an idea of the power of the magnet, Eric Hughes produced photos taken from other hospitals where metal chairs and even whole beds have been pulled into the mouth of the scanner, held off the ground by the power of its magnets. These images are used to impress on staff the importance of keeping metallic objects out of the MRI area, especially as Eric points out the machines in the pictures are just half as powerful as the Orthopaedic's latest addition, which can even affect some tattoos and nail polishes because of the minute amounts of metal contained in them.
While the old machine had a 16-year-old computer at its core, the new scanner connects up to an external PC, meaning it can be swapped out and replaced as faster ones become available and the scanner's operators say it is this kind of foresight that will not only extend the life of the scanner, but also allow them to continuously improve the 10,000 scans they carry out each year.