Dr. Zachary Bland, right, and MRI lead technologist Terri Camp demonstrate the new open-bore MRI equipment at the Billings Clinic on Wednesday. The new equipment will accommodate patients who weigh up to 550 pounds.

Americans are getting fatter, causing hospitals to adjust in how they address and diagnose the needs of an increasingly obese population.

On Wednesday, Billings Clinic unveiled a magnetic resonance imaging system that will accommodate patients weighing up to 550 pounds. The system includes two MRI machines and a Position Emission Tomography scan.

"This technology allows us to perform MRIs on more patients," said Dr. Jeffry Lindenbaum, chair of the Billings Clinic Radiology Department.

Thirty percent of American adults — more than 60 million people — are obese, with about 67 million more classified as overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Many MRIs can accommodate only patients weighing up to 350 pounds. That can sometimes lead to an unclear or indefinite diagnosis because it is difficult for some obese patients to fit through the openings of standard MRI scanners. These patients are often moved to an open MRI scanner, but that's not a cure-all either. While the open MRI scanner can physically accommodate larger patients, these scanners typically have much less power and images of obese patients tend to be of diminished quality.

"We couldn't even get the morbidly obese patients in our old MRI," said Dr. Zachary Bland, interventional radiologist at Billings Clinic. "The tables couldn't support the weight."

According to a recent study in the journal Radiology, the number of inconclusive diagnostic imaging exams has doubled in the past 15 years due to the size of today's patients.

MRIs are one of the fastest-growing medical tests in the United States, due primarily to its ability to provide noninvasive images of soft tissue, bone, fat and muscles and to help diagnose health conditions such as orthopedic injuries, breast cancer, neurological disorders and cardiac diseases.

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It's not just the obese who will find the new MRI more accommodating. Others who have struggled in the past will, too, including the elderly, those who suffer from claustrophobia, excessive pain or limited mobility. They were hindered by the relatively small opening where the patient lies, and the long tubelike structure of the machine, which can feel constricting. The new MRI is shorter and has a larger opening that should help reduce patient anxiety. It also means most exams can be done with the patient's head outside of the system.

Both outpatients and those hospitalized once had to travel a block off site for an MRI.

"This is a piece of the puzzle that's been missing for 20 years," said Radiology Director Michael Wright.

One feature of the new MRI is that it has the strongest magnet strength available, meaning patients — and physicians  — have access to higher quality, "superior" images as well as a larger variety of images.

"The strength of that magnet is difficult to even comprehend," Bland said.

Wright said the hospital is contractually bound to not disclose the cost of the new system, but said MRI systems can cost between $1 million and $3 million each.

The new system is said to be faster and more efficient. It also includes mood lighting and music, which can help calm patients during the exam.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.