Over the past decade, advances in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology have produced vast improvements in image quality. Better images can translate into better, more accurate diagnoses by physicians and often better outcomes for patients. However, despite the improvement 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 length of time. They are required to remain very still and have only a few inches of extra room on any side. Combine these factors with the loud repetitive noise of the scanner and the stress of illness, and you have the recipe for a high-anxiety reaction, even from most even-keeled patient.
Open MRI's are designed without sides to relieve some of the claustrophobia associated with the procedure, but even then, many patients still find it too uncomfortable. Others can only tolerate the scan with the aid of a sedative. However, a new audio-video virtual reality system is transforming the MRI experience. From the patient's perspective, the system is a comfortable, 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, what patients see is a television program or movie projected as though they were watching a 60-inch television screen at a distance of 5 feet.
Rafael Figueroa, MD, Medical Director at East Jefferson Imaging Center (EJIC) describes the new technology enthusiastically. He says, "It is the perfect addition to an MRI machine. It couples well with our high field open magnet, which already decreases the feeling of claustrophobia. Then, you add the goggles, and you create a super pleasant experience for the patient."
Claustrophobic or not, the addition of the virtual reality goggles is a game changer for MRI. To get the idea, imagine a pair of the old Viewmaster binoculars kids used to play with. Then reimagine them in the 21st Century. The goggles themselves have a soft piece of rubber around them, so they fit snuggly and comfortably without being constricting. The LCD screen projects the TV show or movie of your choice, and the noise cancelling headset allows you to hear the soundtrack, not the MRI machine. Your MRI test (or your child's) just went from white knuckle hour to a midday movie break.
Radiology Operations Manager Jeff Edge explains, "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. 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 are already so focused on whatever they're watching that they don't even know they're in the MRI machine."
The headset is also 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, is feeling 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 an easily accessed panic button attached to the headset that patients can hold themselves. "Sometimes just knowing that they have the power to press the button at any time is enough to provide put a patient at ease," says Edge.
According to Figueroa, reviews of the new technology have been overwhelmingly positive. He says, "We have had some patients that didn't want to go in to the MRI at first. Then they practiced with the goggles lying down and felt much better. They're 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," Figueroa adds. "It is the other piece of the equation for MRI. We have always had amazing imaging technology, and now we can offer entertainment and a more pleasant patient experience."
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