Image Makeover

High-tech scanners give emergency room doctors a lifesaving tool.

Hospital emergency rooms once resembled bare-bones M.A.S.H. units, with concrete walls in place of canvas flaps. Triage, after all, was their primary function. But these days, ERs are more like fully loaded mini hospitals, and none of their new accoutrements is more important than the on-site CT scanner.

Often called CAT scans, CTs are two- or three-dimensional X-ray images used to diagnose everything from appendicitis to head trauma. And with ER visits skyrocketing (due in part to aging populations), the immediacy CTs offer is vital. At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where annual emergency room visits have jumped from 35,000 to 50,000 since 2001, a CT scanner is the centerpiece of the new $34 million ER. Mass General now sees 80,000 ER patients and performs about 40,000 scans each year with its recently installed 3-D scanner.

“It’s incredible,” says David Ring, an orthopedic surgeon at Mass General. “With complex injuries, you didn’t know what you were going to find. Today, we’re never surprised.”

In the past, CT scans took place far from the ER—on another floor, or even in another wing—and wheeling a patient around cost precious minutes. Not to mention that the scanning technology itself was slow—up to two hours for full body imaging. Today’s equipment can scan the patient from head to toe in two minutes, creating full-color digital pictures as detailed as an artist’s rendering. The future will see CT scanners’ use expanded even further: MGH’s new surgery department, due in 2011, will include two state-of-the-art machines.