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MRI-Equipped Ambulance Could Be a Game-Changer for Stroke Care

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 03 Nov 2023
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Image: MRI images obtained in a moving ambulance could improve stroke care (Photo courtesy of 123RF)
Image: MRI images obtained in a moving ambulance could improve stroke care (Photo courtesy of 123RF)

The critical nature of timing in treating a stroke is widely recognized, and faster medical response often leads to more favorable recoveries. This urgency is especially relevant with medications like clot-dissolving tPA, which must be administered within a narrow timeframe. The challenge, however, lies in the timely execution of necessary diagnostic studies. Now, the findings of a new trial in which researchers equipped an ambulance with a portable MRI have demonstrated the potential of an MRI-equipped ambulance in treating stroke patients.

Currently, some hospitals deploy mobile stroke units with CT scanners, but these are not without their drawbacks, such as the risk of radiation. Portable MRIs, on the other hand, are free from radiation hazards and their lower magnetic fields eliminate concerns about the proximity of metal, thereby allowing for the use of other medical devices simultaneously. Unlike traditional MRI, portable units can potentially serve to identify strokes even in patients who lack a defined timeline of their stroke's onset. The latest human trial by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) was based on an earlier trial that had shown it was possible to obtain MRI images in a moving ambulance on a standardized calibration model.

In the new human trial, the research team equipped an ambulance from Charleston County EMS with a portable MRI and managed to take images while driving at a slow pace around a parking area. The trial produced diagnostic-grade images from a healthy volunteer, which were then sent to hospital radiologists to be examined. While these initial findings are promising, the researchers will continue to investigate whether high-quality images can be captured at the ambulance's normal operating speed. The team is also redesigning the ergonomics of how the MRI can fit within the ambulance space. Advancements in technology and further clinical research could make MRI-equipped ambulances a revolutionary tool in emergency medical care, offering critical diagnostic capabilities to stroke patients en route to the hospital.

“If you think about where defibrillators were 50 years ago, they were hundreds of pounds, and it really took out-of-the-box thinking to imagine they could be portable. And now, they're public access points,” said Dustin LeBlanc, M.D., director of Prehospital Medicine and associate chief medical officer for Emergency Management at MUSC. “The MRI-equipped ambulance is just another example of technology helping us to develop ways to make things faster, lighter, smaller, more portable and to get it to the patient as quickly as possible.”

“If you're somebody who could just receive tPA, you might go to a local hospital, while those who need to have advanced procedures, such as interventional neuroradiology, would go to a different hospital,” said Jillian Harvey, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Health Professions. “The imaging provided by the portable MRI scanner in the ambulance could help make that decision. If we can get that information in transit and the decision process going before they even arrive at the hospital, then we can shorten the time to care and treatment.”

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