No explanation for burns resulting from MRI equipment at N.B. hospital

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MONCTON, N.B. - No one can explain why three patients have recently emerged with burns from the magnetic resonance imaging equipment at The Moncton Hospital.
The patients' burns occurred during a seven-day period near the end of November, which forced the MRI equipment to be put out of use and prompted an in-depth investigation. The burns have resembled the intensity of a blistering sunburn.
The situation has baffled doctors at the hospital, who say burns in MRI scans are so rare that a rash of three in one week is almost unheard of, even internationally.
Dan Hickey, the regional director of diagnostic imaging for the Horizon Health Network, which administers the hospital, said it is indeed very rare to see any problems with the scans.
As an example, he noted that only three problem cases have popped up at The Moncton Hospital, where over 8,000 scans are conducted each year.
"It is extremely rare for patients to experience any untoward events as a result of an MRI," he said.
Hickey said the investigation has assessed all the aspects of the scan process, from the equipment to the physical environment in which it is located, the professional protocols related to the scans and the specific circumstances surrounding each patient's scan - including considerations such as positioning.
Hickey said the investigation is complete, but no specific cause has been found for the bizarre outbreak of burns.
"No, in fact we are not able to say what the cause is in each of those three instances," said Hickey, who said all the aspects of the MRI process have been probed.
Hickey said old tattoos have been cited as the cause of burns in some scans due to the presence of metallic material in the skin, but not in these three particular cases.
The MRI equipment manufacturer's own experts were called in to investigate the equipment, but that didn't offer any answers.
"The manufacturer has indicated the equipment is functioning as normal," said Hickey.
Despite the mystery that still surrounds the three burn cases, Hickey said there are some corrective measures and precautions that are currently being implemented. He said the machine will begin scanning patients only once the measures are taken and the equipment is certified for use.
In the meantime, urgent and emergency MRI scans have been sent to the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont Regional Hospital.
Hickey said that has caused some backlogs because outpatient referrals make up the bulk of more than 8,000 MRI scans that are processed at The Moncton Hospital each year.
"When you are not providing services for a couple of weeks, there are delays because the vast majority of patients are on an outpatient basis," said Hickey.
But Hickey said the backlog would not push the equipment back into use before all safety issues are addressed.
"The health and safety of the patients is of the utmost and first priority so that is the chief and principal interest," he said.
Considering the implications for patients' safety and the mystery that surrounds the burns, The Moncton Hospital's medical director of medical imaging, Dr. Roy Tingley, said doctors won't co-operate in reinstating the use of the aging equipment unless they are satisfied it won't harm patients.
"There is not one guy in this department that would put someone from their family, or any patient, in that machine right now," said Tingley.
He has sent a letter to provincial government officials to express his concerns over the situation.
Tingley said doctors have been advised by lawyers that they will be exposing the hospital to liability risks if they begin to use the equipment again before a source of the burns can be found.
He said the ideal situation would be to see the equipment replaced with emergency funding.
He said both machines should be replaced in the near future, but he said they are not the only needs identified at the hospitals.
Hickey said the equipment, which has been in operation for about eight years, is about the same age as MRI equipment at the Saint John Regional Hospital.
"Both systems have been identified as being in need of replacement in the near future," he said.

Organizations: The Moncton Hospital, N.B. hospital, Georges-L.-Dumont Regional Hospital Saint John Regional Hospital

Geographic location: MONCTON

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