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MRI saves money, better than CT in acute stroke



Getting an MRI first for suspected stroke, instead of a CT, saves money by avoiding unnecessary admissions and might lead to better outcomes, according to a review from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Argye Hillis, director of the Center of Excellence in Stroke Detection and Diagnosis at Hopkins.

Dr. Argye Hillis

MRI as the first scan leads to “a definitive diagnoses sooner and helps you manage the person more rapidly and appropriately, without negatively affecting outcomes even in stroke patients who receive endovascular therapy,” said neurologist and senior investigator Argye Hillis, MD, director of the Center of Excellence in Stroke Detection and Diagnosis at Hopkins. “Consider skipping the CT and getting an MRI, and get the MRI while they are still in the emergency room.”

Almost all emergency departments in the United States are set up to get a CT first, but MRI is known to be the better study, according to the researchers. MRI is much more sensitive to stroke, especially in the first 24 hours, and pinpoints the location and extent of the damage. It can detect causes of stroke invisible to CT, with no radiation, and rule out stroke entirely, whereas CT can rule out only intracranial bleeding. Increasingly in Europe, MRI is the first study in suspected stroke, and new EDs in the United States are being designed with an in-house MRI, or one nearby.

The ED at Hopkins’ main campus in downtown Baltimore already has an MRI, and uses it first whenever possible. The problem has been that MRI techs are available only during weekdays, so physicians have to default back to CT at night and on weekends. The impetus for the review, presented at the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association, was to see if savings from unnecessary admissions prevented by MRI would be enough to offset the cost of around-the-clock staffing for the MRI scanner.

Dr. Hillis and her team reviewed 320 patients with suspected ischemic stroke who were seen at the main campus in 2018 and had CT in the ED, and then definitive diagnosis by MRI, which is the usual approach in most U.S. hospitals.

A total of 134 patients had a final diagnosis on MRI that did not justify admission; techs were available to give 75 of them MRIs in the ED after the CT, and those patients were sent home. Techs were not available, however, for 59 patients and since the CT was not able to rule out stroke, those patients were admitted. The cost of those 59 admissions was $814,016.

The cost of the noncontrast CTs for the 75 patients who were sent home after definitive MRI imaging was $28,050, plus an additional $46,072 for those who had CT neck/head angiograms. Altogether, skipping the CT and going straight to the MRI would have saved Hopkins $888,138 in 2018, enough to cover round-the-clock MRI staffing in the ED, which is now the plan at the main campus.

Once the facility moves to 24-and-7 MRI coverage, the next step in the project is to compare stroke outcomes with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, also in Baltimore, which will continue to do CT first. “We know MRI first is cheaper. We want to see if we have better outcomes. If we find they’re much better, I think many hospitals will say it’s worth the 5 minutes longer it takes to get to the MRI scanner,” Dr. Hillis said.

Stroke mimics among the 134 patients included peripheral nerve palsy and migraine, but also people simply faking it for a hot meal and a warm bed. “Its pretty common, unfortunately,” she said.

The average age for stroke admissions at Hopkins is 55 years, with as many men as women.

There was no industry funding, and Dr. Hillis didn’t have any relevant disclosures.

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