MRI Safety, Per ACR Accreditation Standards

“Peachy Keen!”

One can only presume that this is the commentary that US States and radiology accreditation agencies have to offer on the contemporary state of MRI safety. After all, there’s been nothing more than navel-gazing when it comes to measurable changes in standards for MRI providers. Let’s break it down…

This first installment will look specifically at MRI safety standards as implemented by the American College of Radiology (ACR). By tackling them, first, I don’t mean to suggest that they’re the only concern with respect to MRI safety. In fact, in a weird, schizophrenic way, ACR has simultaneously advanced and held back MRI safety. More on that towards the end of this piece.

MRI Accident Rate Slide from ACR Quality & Safety Forum 2010

MRI Accident Rate Slide from ACR Quality & Safety Forum 2010

The American College of Radiology has distinguished itself with the premier industry best practice publication on MR safety, the Guidance Document for Safe MR Practices. Originally named the White Paper on MR Safety (published in 2002), its name switched to the Guidance Document with a 2004 update. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the ACR’s MR Safety Committee (the authoring body) for what became the 2007 edition.

When the Committee met at the ACR headquarters in the late summer of 2006, to review drafts and collectively decide on the final revisions, it was noted that the ACR’s contemporary MR accreditation program didn’t actually require any of the safety provisions found in the (then twice published) Guidance Document. In that meeting, five years ago, the MR Safety Committee unanimously voted to formally request that the ACR incorporate safety provisions found in the Guidance Document in the MR accreditation program (this was frightfully easy since the representatives of the College were there in the room with us).

Surrounding that Committee meeting in 2006, Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis (NSF) was the hot topic in MR safety. The radiology community and trade press were trading speculation, recrimination, and early analyses. The 2006 Guidance Document was held until it could be published with the collected best available information regarding NSF, which meant that it wasn’t released until early 2007.

Perhaps the ACR was waiting for the new Guidance Document to be released, I thought, so they didn’t implement any of the safety requirements in their MR accreditation program prior to the new version’s publication. So the rest of 2006 came and went, as did all of 2007, without so much as a hint that the MR Accreditation program would include the Guidance Document‘s safety standards. Nearly all of 2008 passed the same way, with no indication that the ACR intended to include it’s own MRI safety standards in its accreditation requirements. But things showed promise of moving forward at the 2008 RSNA meeting.

I learned that the ACR’s MR accreditation committee was entertaining the notion of including some elements of the Guidance Document’s safety standards and that they had asked one of their physicists (not anyone from the MR Safety Committee) to draft a checklist set of safety standards. Purportedly, at that 2008 RSNA meeting, it was proposed that the 30+ page Guidance Document be distilled to about a half-dozen check-box question. One could argue that ‘something was better than nothing’, but the notion that these questions actually captured the essential safety elements of the Guidance Document was laughable. It didn’t fly. Back to square one.

Fast forward about a year, to summer 2009, when, at the AHRA annual meeting, representatives from ACR were giving a status update about accreditation standards. It was a packed meeting as the writing was on the wall about CMS requiring modality accreditation through the new MIPPA law. In that presentation, the ACR representatives stated that ACR would be incorporating elements of the Guidance Document‘s safety principles in the MR Accreditation program. Precisely how this was to happen was yet to be determined, but it would happen.

In early 2010 CMS announced that the ACR would be one of three approved accreditation bodies to accredit imaging providers’ CT, PET, and MRI scanners to qualify for reimbursement under the MIPPA law.

I was tremendously optimistic that this new requirement status would help to remove the concern within the ACR that implementing safety standards, unilaterally, would make other accreditation programs comparatively easier, and therefore more appealing to MRI providers. Now providers would be required to get accreditation, and ACR was clearly the front-runner in modality accreditation of the three named agencies. I called the ACR and spoke with a senior person within the organization about the safety standards. That person quickly burst my bubble…

Despite the public promise to incorporate elements of the Guidance Document from the prior year, in 2010 the ACR representative told me there would be no such plan going forward because they were now an approved accrediting body under the MIPPA law. According to this person, it was determined that it would be far too ‘bureaucratically burdensome’ to have to go through CMS (a step which would be required for any change to the accreditation structure, now that it was CMS sanctioned) to update it’s standards to include the safety elements in the Guidance Document. The irony of a federal law mandating quality and safety standards being the reason that an accrediting agency claimed it couldn’t enact safety standards wasn’t lost on me. Fortunately, I was just about to get the chance to talk with the principal radiology quality and safety person at CMS to let her know what I thought of their safety-inhibiting bureaucracy.

In the summer of 2010, I was a participant in a joint presentation on MRI safety between the FDA and CMS.  One of the CMS representatives in that presentation was Jeannie Miller, Deputy Director of the Clinical Standards Group. After that presentation, I followed up with Ms. Miller and asked her about the ACR contention that it was now too ‘burdensome’, because of their new role with CMS, to add safety standards to their existing MR Accreditation program. In a word, Ms. Miller was incredulous.

She told me that, just a few weeks prior to our conversation, the ACR had submitted their breast MR accreditation program to CMS for their approval. How long did the ‘burdensome’ CMS bureaucratic review take for this new and unprecedented MR accreditation program? Less than two weeks! Ms. Miller was dumbfounded at the suggestion that CMS would make it anything but easy for a quality and safety standard to enhance its safety components. So, if CMS ‘burdensome bureaucracy’ is just a smoke screen, what’s the real reason ACR is unwilling to heed the recommendation of their own MR Safety Committee, and honor the promise they made two years ago, to incorporate substantive safety requirements in their MR Accreditation program? Could it be money?

Though ACR is one of the accrediting bodies from which CMS mandates that outpatient participants must obtain accreditation, it’s still one of three. While ACR is seeking to ‘make the pie bigger’ by advocating for mandatory accreditation of more modalities than just CT, MRI, and PET and for accreditation of hospital-based imaging, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, they’re also looking at their proportional slice of that pie. Were they to unilaterally decide on MR safety enhancements to their accreditation program, it might make providers looking for the lowest-threshold CMS accreditation steer clear of ACR. I suspect that the ACR’s thinking goes that, by enacting MR safety standards, they’re likely to lose prospective members and the revenue that their participation in the ACR’s accreditation program provides.

So we’re left with this profound contradiction presented by the ACR. One one hand, they have produced the industry’s best MRI safety best-practice document. On the other hand, they’re playing ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ when it comes to implementing the real-world safety benefits that their own Guidance Document.

And it’s not as if the ACR has any doubts about the value of the Guidance Document… as a safety tool. They have brought together many of the best minds on MR safety, four times now (the 4th release of the Guidance Document is likely to come out in the 2nd half of 2011). The MR Safety Committee lead the charge in disseminating best practice standards relative to NSF screening. And at the ACR’s own radiology quality and safety forum, last year, they were presented with a paper jointly authored by their own MR Safety Committee chair, Dr. Emanuel Kanal, and me, which showed that the explicit provisions in the Guidance Document could mitigate at least 80% of the clinical MRI accidents (see the video of that presentation, here).

So, ACR, you’ve been asked to implement the Guidance Document in your MR Accreditation standards. You’ve said that you would do so. Then you reneged on that promise with an excuse that’s been shown to be tissue-thin. At the same time, representatives have testified before Congress that in the interest of safety, there should be more accreditation of imaging and therapy devices in more healthcare settings.

Explain to me one more time why it is that you can’t honor your promise to include MRI safety standards in your MR Accreditation program?

Tobias Gilk,
President & MRI Safety Director — Mednovus, Inc.
Sr. Vice President —

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PS: Tune back in for the next installment, which will be taking a close look at the Joint Commission’s role in MRI safety.

One thought on “MRI Safety, Per ACR Accreditation Standards

  1. Pingback: Transparency & Disappearance « MRI Metal Detector Blog

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