Here we sit, on the cusp of mandatory accreditation for ‘Advanced Imaging’ modalities at outpatient providers (these are CT, MRI and PET), and a series of articles on medical radiation exposure splashes across the New York Times.
In nearly concurrent moves, the Joint Commission (JC) unveils their just-developed Advanced Imaging (AI) accreditation program, the FDA is clamoring for new authority to regulate medical device safety (or gearing-up to use authority that it’s been hiding for safe-keeping, that isn’t exactly clear to me), the US Congress whips together a set of hearings on the issue, and, at those hearings, the American College of Radiology (ACR) recommends that the Feds expand the scope of the AI accreditation requirement to include radiation therapy and to apply the expanded accreditation requirements to hospitals, too.
Whew, that’s a lot of ground covered for radiology in just the last few weeks! Wait a minute… who is that sitting in the backseat? Who has been drug through all of the hullabaloo about radiation exposure and patient safety without once having been considered, individually? MRI, that’s who.
So congress is alarmed at the lack of regulatory oversight on ionizing modalities, such as CT or beam therapies, hmm? The ACR couldn’t get to the hearings fast enough to recommend that the Congress mandate both deeper and broader accreditation requirements (which the ACR would be pleased to provide, by the way). The argument in favor of these enhanced accreditation requirements is that the patchwork body of existing state requirements are simply inadequate to protect patient safety.
What was the reaction to the fact that there are zero (and I’m not being dramatic here… I mean zero) requirements at state or federal levels for physical safety around MRI systems? Or what was the reaction to the fact that the FDA’s own data shows a near-four-fold increase in the number of MRI accidents in recent years? What about the fact that in states like Missouri, where I was born, don’t even require any credentialling of technologists who administer MRI exams? (Seriously, in Missouri you have to have vastly more proof-of-competence to give someone colored highlights in their hair than administer their MRI exam.)
What was the reaction? None. Nada. Zilch.
Why? Because MRI has just been ‘along for the ride,’ apparently.
It’s important to realize that the bulk of radiology’s regulatory oversight grew out of federal standards for ionizing radiation protection of workers on the Manhattan project. Those standards became the template to be adopted and adapted by the individual states. The FDA, which regulates the approval of radiology equipment as diagnostic or therapeutic device, has left the oversight of the safety of the administration of that exam / procedure to the states.
What resulted was a patchwork of mix-matched state regulations governing ionizing radiation devices that use X-rays (such as CT and mammography), and radioisotopes (such as in nuclear medicine and many therapies).
In the 80’s, MRI came along. Since MRI didn’t use ionizing radiation, it was almost as if the absence of regulation was seen as ‘proof’ that MRI was safe. Neither hospitals nor the equipment manufacturers were interested in promoting regulation for this new modality, and quite honestly most state authorities and elected officials didn’t really understand what MRI was (and their inaction probably saved us from some very bad legislation at the time… look no further than the contemporary European Physical Agents Directive to see what ill-informed regulation can do to MRI).
Let there be no mistake about it, MRI accreditation efforts have been driven primarily by payors. Apart from the last few weeks, the overall accreditation program balance between image quality and patient safety has leaned heavily towards the side of image quality. Let’s use the ACR’s MRI accreditation program as the example…
To be accredited by the ACR for MRI, there is a long list of quality controls that have to be implemented regularly. And since image interpretation is largely a qualitative skill, the ACR went so far as to develop a specialized imaging phantom to distill otherwise-subjective quality differences into objective tests (can you see the proper number of spokes on the phantom image?). There are logs, tests, data-collection, reports, all necessary to help assure that the machine is capable of producing pictures of a minimum requisite quality.
At the same time that the ACR has made such remarkable efforts at standardizing measures of quality, they have largely ignored even their own MR Safety Committee’s request to include physical safety criteria in the MR accreditation program.
In 2006, during the MR Safety Committee’s working session to develop what became the ACR Guidance Document for Safe MR Practices: 2007, the Safety Committee, unanimously, issued a formal request to the College to include the standards developed by the Safety Committee as a part of the MR accreditation program. Four years later, there is no objective evidence that this formal request has been taken seriously.
Both the ACR and the other primary imaging accrediting body, the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission (IAC), assert that their standards for MRI accreditation are serious and robust, yet neither have identified how their MRI safety standards have successfully responded to the nearly 300% increase in MRI accidents in the last several years. If these accrediting bodies are serious about MRI safety, how can the reconcile the alarming MRI accident growth with their wet-noodle protections?
I have left the Joint Commission out of this evaluation of accreditation standards because – prior to this year – the JC has not offered a single modality-specific accreditation standard for MRI, or any other imaging device. From an MRI patient safety perspective, they’ve been virtually a non-factor, even though their accreditation services cover thousands of providers across the US that offer MRI services.
So today, MRI is lumped-in with CT and PET as a part of the AI accreditation program. And AI accreditation is largely seen as the way to address the headline-grabbing concerns about ionizing radiation exposure.
To be perfectly clear, I support greater attention to standards and safeguards for ionizing modalities, but I find the omission of any mention of MRI safety in the current conversation surrounding the Advanced Imaging accreditation program as an indictment of the earnestness of this as a patient safety campaign.
I think that accreditation should follow the path that the ACR has laid out, and I don’t begrudge them their efforts at positioning themselves as the preferred accrediting body for this expanded role. However, I think that a little ‘truth in advertising’ is called for (one could even call it a quid pro quo).
The ACR (and IAC, who I imagine is equally interested in expanded mandatory accreditation) should balance their own indisputable self-interest in new accreditation requirements with some substantive action on objective MRI physical safety requirements. Standards for MRI safety have literally been ‘laid at their doorstep,’ now all they have to do is adopt them.
If we fail to look at the escalating rates of accidents and injuries in MRI and address them as a part of the broader ‘radiology safety’ conversation; if we focus solely on ionizing radiation to the exclusion of all else, then we will again ignore the giant magnetic elephant in the room… the one that represents the alarming rate at which we’re increasingly injuring MRI patients.Tobias Gilk, President & MRI Safety Director Mednovus, Inc. Tobias.Gilk@Mednovus.com www.MEDNOVUS.com