Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is probably not the most unpleasant medical procedure out there, but it does require the patient to remain motionless inside a long, very loud tube for whatever time it takes the machine to get a clear picture, typically around 15 minutes. For patients, especially those with anxiety, claustrophobia, or a tendency to fidget or who are in pain or too young to follow instructions, that can feel like an eternity.
But it’s necessary: Only an MRI has the high resolution and contrast to allow clinicians to see fine detail in soft tissue like that in the spine, or potentially life-threatening tumors, for example. The longer the scan, the higher the image quality.
Fortunately, says Dr. Melany Atkins, medical director of the Fairfax MRI Center and of advanced cardiac imaging at Inova Fairfax Hospital, there’s a new technique, developed by GE Healthcare, for delivering high-quality images in a short amount of time. AIR Recon DL uses deep-learning technology to simultaneously improve MRI image quality and enable reduced scan time, improving the patient experience. AIR Recon DL was recently recognized in the “Best of What's New” awards by Popular Science magazine.
Don’t Move … Or Else We’ll Have to Rescan
MRI machines create images by using high-powered magnets to excite and detect radio frequency signals from hydrogen atoms in the patient’s body. Coils placed on the patient’s body act as receivers for those radio waves — the tighter and closer, the higher the signal.
“An MRI [can be] an anxiety-inducing experience,” Atkins acknowledges. “A lot of things are covering you. They might strap you down to keep you from moving.” Any movement, even involuntary movements like breathing, will degrade the resulting image. To avoid this, MR technologists might advise patients to hold their breath at crucial moments. Recorded voices inside the bore constantly remind patients not to move, which is even more anxiety-inducing.
A vital component of the scanning process is the coil placement. Some coils can be hard and rigid, and sometimes their placement can be rather invasive, such as when acquiring an image of the prostate. This makes the process even more uncomfortable than it already is.
However, GE Healthcare customers and patients don’t have to experience that discomfort. They get to enjoy the benefits of AIR Coils, which are light and flexible and conform to the body shape and positioning — they can wrap around a patient’s arm, for example. Atkins compares it to a warm blanket. “Patients like it a lot,” she says. “They don’t feel like they’re tied up and strapped down inside a claustrophobic tunnel.” While other vendors have switched to flexible coils, she adds, the AIR coils are unique to GE Healthcare.
Faster Scans, Better Throughput
According to Frost & Sullivan data, COVID-19 contributed to a 35.5% drop in MRI procedure volume in 2020. While scans were back up in 2021, they have not yet reached pre-COVID numbers. Tackling this backlog is going to require major efforts on the part of radiologists and technologists across the nation to process and review images, manage scan times, and disinfect MRI equipment between patients. Departments are also facing these challenges at a time when they are attempting to battle industry-wide staff shortages and burnout.
One way to ease the problem involves technology — specifically, using artificial intelligence to increase the clarity of images while cutting down on scan time. AIR Recon DL reduces scan time by up to 50%. That not only makes it a better and faster experience for the patient but also means that more patients can be scheduled and seen in a given day.
Patient Pleasers: A More Comfortable and Faster Scan
The most important thing about AIR Recon DL, Atkins says, is the speed. “Holding still for an MRI is like being on an airplane,” she says. “The longer you sit, the more you fidget. Every minute you can decrease in the experience is considered a benefit.”
Atkins has seen dramatic decreases in scan times. “I saw a patient last Friday who needs repeat prostate MRIs,” she says. “We saw a 12-minute time saving from the 2019 exam. It would have been more, but we had to repeat one sequence.” When she first saw the patient in 2013, he needed an endorectal coil and the scan took approximately 45 minutes. Now it takes less than 20, and he can use the external AIR Coil instead. Best of all, she says, “there was a major image quality improvement.”
Since its introduction in 2020, AIR Recon DL has scanned an estimated 5.5 million patients and has undergone several updates, most recently one that makes it compatible with other applications, including 3D imaging and PROPELLER (a motion-insensitive scan application), which is less sensitive to patients moving.
And with the better image quality, Atkins says, patients can get a diagnosis and a treatment plan faster than before, while spending less time in the bore: “The key is decreasing overall scan time while improving image quality.”
 Calculated using IB data with an estimation of 20 scans per day, 5.5 days per week, from 4 weeks after delivery to November 2022.