Buck Rogers Technology on Wheels

A subsidiary of American Medical International Inc., borrowing a page out of medical history from the old mobile X-ray units, has developed a portable diagnostic device that allows doctors a safe, sophisticated peek inside the human body, yet could save hospitals millions of dollars.

Although stationary units using the technology--called magnetic resonance imaging--have been available to hospitals for more than two years, AMI Diagnostic Services Inc., a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based AMI, is one of the first companies to offer a portable imaging system that can be shared by several hospitals.

During the 1950s and 1960s, mobile X-ray machines were used by the American Lung Assn. and other groups to provide early diagnosis of tuberculosis. Housed in a tractor-trailer rig, the mobile units offered free chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests. The mobile units--discontinued eight years ago in the wake of physician warnings about too-frequent use of X-rays--were often parked outside shopping centers or busy street corners where passers-by could be tested in a few minutes.

The resonance imaging systems are a little more complicated.

Using a magnetic field to read the energy produced when the body's cells are bathed in radio waves, magnetic imaging can eliminate the need for exploratory surgery by enabling physicians to see through bone, to hard-to-view areas such as the brain, spinal cord and bone marrow. Nor is there potential danger from radiation.

But this Buck Rogers technology is expensive, experts say. Stationary systems, such as the one at the Huntington Research Institute in Pasadena, cost about $2 million to install because of the extensive construction work needed to shield the building from stray radio and magnetic waves.

Larry Atkins, president AMI Diagnostic Services, said his company can help cut those costs by using a specially shielded, 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck to transport a mobile magnetic imaging machine from hospital to hospital.

The 26-ton machine is being used on a trial basis pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Atkins said his company charges hospitals about $500 per hour for use of the machine.

"You really need a demand of about 200 patients a month to justify owning your own," Atkins said. "The real significance of our unit is that it can be shared among several hospitals . . . like time-sharing on a computer. It eliminates the need to make a gigantic investment."

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