Scanning the Horizon

Medical practices have evolved rapidly over the past century, and with each development, imagining the next medical technology becomes a challenge. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is one of those technologies, elevating itself as a premier tool for research and clinical care. But this complicated machine brings to the table more than just cool images of the anatomy and physiology of the human body–it allows physicians and patients to interact at a whole other level. But even that is not the entire story. Is MRI, as it is utilized in this immediate era, being held back from its ultimate potential? This life-saving technology could possibly be preventing humans from moving forward in preventative medicine. One thing is certain: MRI will be the next step in the future of medicine, and whether or not it is the masses that control this technology rather than the healthcare system, remains to be seen.

A little background on how an MRI machine works would be helpful in understanding the technology as it pertains to its form of media. An MRI can be thought of as an enormous magnet. The magnets within the machine create a magnetic field around the area of the body that is to be scanned. The majority of the human body is made up of water, and in each water molecule are two hydrogen atoms. So when the magnets create the magnetic field, this causes the hydrogen atoms to emit a radio frequency signal. The type of tissue in which the water molecule resides determines the frequency and length of the signal emitted by the hydrogen atoms. A scanner in the MRI to create a three-dimensional image then records this signal (Gould).

The ability to produce a detailed three-dimensional image of any part of the human body is valuable for both researchers and health-care providers. For neuroscientists doing research, a common practice is to couple MRI with radioactive tagging and record the brain’s reaction to different activities. In doing this, researchers are able to see what parts of the brain “light up” when performing different activities, like watching a scary movie or listening to a romantic novel.

But what truly displays the artifact politics of MRI is its use in a clinical setting. Langdon Winner talks about technologies having politics, either directly or indirectly, in his essay, Do Artifacts have Politics? The idea that technology can change how humans interact and display a political system can be applied to MRI.

The physician-patient interaction is a critical cog in the health-care experience, second only to the actual treatment of whatever is ailing a patient. It is important that a patient feels understood and also understands what is causing a condition that produces discomfort. When a doctor asks a plethora of standardized questions designed for efficiency and proceeds to run multiple tests, a patient can feel out of the loop. The lack of communication between a physician and patient can cause a rift that leads to misunderstanding. The patient does not feel important, but rather, like another case number in a file.

MRI can take away some of the magic, mystique, or general “coldness” that can be felt during a trip to see a health-care professional. Because MRI is non-intrusive, it is safer and less threatening than most exploratory surgeries or blood tests, while still capable of gaining more insight than those conventional methods. Not only that, but because MRI produces such high-resolution images, it is a simple task for a physician to include a patient in reviewing an MRI. That alone is enough to create a dialogue and increase patient-physician communication, enhancing patient understanding. By including a patient in the health-care process, the patient-physician relationship is able to grow and become a positive interaction that may allow a more advanced healing process.

Another feature of MRI that provides a stepping-stone forward in health-care relationships is the ability to supply an answer. Most patients who receive an MRI scan have been struggling with an unresolved condition that is unknown despite other testing methods. When a patient is shown, slice-by-slice, what has been causing a chronic pain or discomfort, a physician is able to provide comfort in providing an answer. A patient is finally able to see for himself what is going on inside the body, producing a constructive relationship of trust with the health-care provider.

On the flip side, however, the line between constructive and destructive is a fine one. These scans can just as easily create a destructive relationship between a physician and patient through the over-reliance on medical practices. Nothing is perfect, including medical procedures, and that same mystique that surrounds health-care can set high expectations on a physician who orders an MRI. When a patient pays the exorbitant price for an MRI, satisfactory results are expected. MRI may provide an answer, but that is not the same thing as a solution. The cause of pain may be discovered, but a physician still may not be able to completely solve the condition. This can cause frustration towards health-care providers, even when the real issue is that humans have much to learn about the practice of medicine.

This whole process of taking an MRI scan takes minimal time, sometimes as little as 20 minutes. But in the process, an MRI produces a magnetic field measured at approximately 1.5 Teslas, which is 30,000 times greater than the magnetic field felt on the surface of the earth. This requires expensive raw materials and up-keep of the machine. The high cost is reflected on the bills of the patients who require the services of an MRI scan, simultaneously deterring doctors from prescribing the procedure to patients who may not be able to afford the steep price tag. The median price of an MRI before insurance coverage was about $1,100, as of 2014 (Glover). More people require the use of MRI than there are health care professionals who can operate and interpret MRI scans. Because there are essentially a few select individuals who “control” the technology of MRI, this could be described as an authoritarian type of technology.

The power of the technology rests in the hands of health care professionals, while patients depend on these providers to prescribe and execute scans. Of course, this is understandable, because the amount of skill and training that goes in to the entire process is just as important as the technology itself. Very few individuals without medical training would be able to perform scans of their own bodies and then analyze those scans for diagnoses.

The technology in MRI having authoritarian roots leads to an ethical issue, nonetheless. MRI serves as a microcosm for healthcare and the issue of availability of healthcare to all people. Like the provision of healthcare, MRI scans can be costly to the consumer, and some insurance companies may not cover the procedure.

This reality is frustrating for many. While MRI can provide information about an existing injury or medical condition that is causing discomfort for an individual, MRI can also be utilized to preemptively detect cancer tumors that are too small for traditional methods of screening to detect. Some forms of breast cancer are so aggressive, that by the time a mammogram detects a tumor, it is often too late.

Early detection is the key for most diseases, and MRI provides that next big step in preventative medicine. We need to look ahead, into the horizon–if this medical procedure could become a basic commodity at physicals and other check-ups, it would transform human life. The true potential of MRI will be achieved when the advanced technology works in harmony with the increased patient/physician interaction. MRI needs to work for the physician, and the physician for the patient. The answer to preventative medicine may not lie in discovering new, more advanced technologies, but maybe in finding methods that allow us to produce and operate our current technologies in such a manner that the general population has access to the numerous health benefits.

Works Cited

Gould, Todd. “How MRI Works.” Howstuffworks. 1 Jan. 2014. Web.


Glover, Lacie. “How Much Does an MRI Cost?” Nerdwallet. 1 May 2014. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.


Winner, Langdon. Do Artifacts Have Politics? 1986.


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