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MRI brought to Canada’s North | Queen’s Gazette

MRI brought to Canada's North | Queen's Gazette
Written by Publishing Team

Queens researchers have brought the first MRI machine to northern Canada.

Omar Islam Radiology Department
Omar Islam, chief of diagnostic radiology, Queen’s University, Kingston Health Sciences Center, and his team are bringing a portable MRI scanner to northern Canada for the first time.

When Queens researcher Omar Islam (radiology) first encountered a portable Hyperfine MRI at an international radiology conference in 2019, he immediately recognized the potential impact of an MRI on wheels in remote communities across Canada. Now, thanks to the support of Health Canada and industry partners, Dr. Islam and his team are bringing an MRI machine to northern Canada for the first time. With patients in these communities directly accessing the device rather than traveling long distances for diagnosis, he and his team will study the model’s potential to serve other sites to help democratize access to health care.

Hyperfine Swoop Portable MRI
Hyperfine Swoop Portable MRI

Queens and Kingston Health Sciences Center (KHSC) provides medical services to the predominantly Indigenous residents of the Winnipeco District Health Authority (WAHA) – the Moose Factory and Surrounding Communities – in Northern Ontario. Currently, WAHA patients who urgently or routinely require an MRI must be flown by medical charter flight to either Timmins or Kingston. Statistics show that adverse events related to transportation of critically ill patients can be as high as 60 percent, with severe accidents occurring in nearly 10 percent of transfers. Portable MRI can reduce these risks by providing diagnostic tools directly to health professionals and the patient.

Until very recently, portable MRI technology did not exist. In 2020, a portable MRI machine invented by US-based company Hyperfine received FDA approval and has since been used in academic centers across the US, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, in intensive care units for brain imaging. The first-of-its-kind device provides imaging of the brain and head in care settings such as intensive care units, emergency departments, ambulatory stroke units, and resource-constrained environments. Unlike conventional machines that can weigh up to three tons, the unit is small enough to fit in a lift and operates from a standard power outlet and tablet.

“I thought portable MRI would be a game-changing technology to introduce to Canada, particularly in areas where the availability of MRI is limited or nonexistent,” says Dr. Islam. “The measurement will be the introduction of cell phone service to geographically isolated areas around the world where there was no land line previously.”

Dr. Islam and his team obtained approval from Health Canada and ethical approval from WAHA and Queen’s to conduct a year-long study on the impact of ambulatory MRI within the WAHA community. The Hyperfine machine was taken to Weeneebayko General Hospital, in the Moose Factory Ontario, where local health practitioners began examining patients in November.

The team’s study ultimately aims to evaluate the clinical benefit and cost-savings of a portable MRI device in an environment as remote as WAHA. This includes a cost-benefit analysis of the brachytherapy procedure compared to moving patients to a larger center. To assess image quality and clinical use, all images will be analyzed by board-certified neuroradiologists at KHSC.

Student experience

Eileen Innes, a research associate on the project and chief of staff at the Winyapeco District Health Authority, right, and Chloe De Roche, a sophomore medical student at Queen's University and lead of the project, left.

Sophomore medical student at Queens, Chloe De Roche, has been a part of this project since early on and has been pivotal in assisting with ethical approvals, communications with Health Canada, organizing logistics using Hyperfine, and training the Moose Factory healthcare team.

“We hope to demonstrate that by providing portable MRI to communities in northern Canada, such as WAHA, there will be improved access to advanced healthcare, lower healthcare costs, and better lives for patients and their families who live in small, remote communities across Canada, Dr. Islam says.

Currently, access to MRI devices is restricted by cost, setup, and infrastructure requirements. The need for neuroimaging can be time sensitive as in acute stroke cases, so point-of-care imaging offers the potential for faster diagnosis, treatment and better patient outcomes.

“The mission and vision of the Weeneebayko District Health Authority is to provide care as close to home as possible and the Hyperfine MRI project is another big step in that direction. Before that, patients in the Weeneebayko District had to travel south to get any MRI, so this is now Eliminates the need for travel, time away from home, etc,” says Dr. Elaine Innes, Chief of Staff of WAHA. “We are very excited here at WAHA to have one of my machines only in Canada, and very excited to be collaborating with Queen’s University and industry partners on this very innovative project.”

Queen’s and WAHA’s teams hope that the results of this study will guide the use of portable MRI machines in other Canadian communities and even around the world.

“This project is a perfect marriage of innovation and high-quality patient care,” says Dr. Islam. It serves as a practical example of using technological advances to spur healthcare innovation for those in our society who are disadvantaged by lack of access, geographic barriers, and financial constraints. Through this work, we hope to help narrow the healthcare access gap that currently exists between remote communities in northern Canada and large urban centers.”

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