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Got Scanxiety? New Patient-Friendly Imaging Suites Ease Fears

Whether you're 4 or 44, undergoing an MRI, CT or other imaging test can be unnerving. After all, it's not every day you have to lie perfectly still inside a giant, noisy machine for up to an hour. And yet, patients of all ages undergo these scans every day to take pictures of the inside of their body to help pinpoint or diagnose many kinds of diseases.

One of the most exciting innovations at the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay focuses on improving this experience from start to finish for even the littlest patients. The changes are colorful and creative, and the results can benefit both patient and doctor.

Turning a Test into an Adventure

Each scanning suite has a different Bay Area theme, complete with colorful murals on the walls, music and sound effects, and moving images projected on the inside of the machine. "Kids can pretend they are in a classic cable car, zooming down a steep street; they can picture themselves enjoying the San Francisco Bay on a boat in the Marina, or camping in the majestic Muir Woods," says Dr. John MacKenzie, chief of pediatric radiology at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco. "We really thought of everything we could do to change what's ordinarily a stark, sterile environment into a room that has a bit of wow factor."

Because what works for a 5-year-old may not work for a teen, the staff can tailor the imagery to suit the patient. Younger patients will be treated to bright cartoon characters to help distract and entertain them during the procedure. Older patients may opt for more serene imagery, such as sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The room themes can also help the staff speak to the patients in ways that ease their fears. In the Muir Woods room, for instance, the machine is a "tent" and the table is the "sleeping bag."

Patients will also have the choice to use special MRI goggles to watch a favorite movie during their scan.

Getting Better Results

Getting the best possible images is both incredibly important and — at times — quite challenging. "These procedures can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour," says Dr. Heather Fullerton, medical director of the Pediatric Brain Center at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco. "The more still a patient can stay, the better the results — and the less of a likelihood that we have to have the child come back to have it redone." Currently about 10 percent of patients, mostly kids, need to return for additional imaging.

Another expected benefit of the new suites, notes Fullerton, is that it may cut down on the number of patients who need sedation or even general anesthesia to have a scan performed.