How to get an MRI [cheaply]

If you have hurt yourself in an accident or through some sort of repetitive strain, imaging may be necessary to identify the specific area of injury. There are many skilled practitioners and diagnosticians throughout the world but sometimes with injuries, a picture can paint a thousand words.

What is an MRI?

It stands for magnetic resonance imaging. Unlike x-rays or CT scans, there is no radiation. Instead, a radio frequency is used to knock your hydrogen atoms out of line. As they move back to their natural alignment, each hydrogen atom in your cells emits a tiny electric signal. The MRI scanner has very strong magnets in special coils to detect the electric signal. A computer uses these signals to create a detailed image of your soft tissues.

Herein lies the greatest advantage of MRI over x-rays the ability to image soft tissue. X-rays are really only useful to image bony tissue, but MRI can do both. So the natural question that follows is, why wouldn’t one always opt for MRI? Unfortunately, MRI machines are extremely expensive to make and maintain, thus the cost is passed on to the patient.

Who can refer me for an MRI?

In Australia, all primary health care practitioners can refer people to have MRI scans. This includes general practitioners [GP], chiropractors, physiotherapists, osteopaths, podiatrists, dentists, specialists and so on. The real question most people want to know however is, “Who can refer me for an MRI so that I dont have to pay for it?”

Whilst all of the above mentioned professionals can refer you for an MRI, not all of them can refer for bulk billed MRIs. Bulk billing is a payment option under the Australian medicare system of universal health insurance in Australia. It can cover a prescribed range of health services as listed in the Medicare Benefits Schedule, at the discretion of the health service provider. Basically, if it is bulk billed, it means you will not have to pay for it.

How do I get one then?

There’s no such thing as a free MRI, you will ultimately pay for it in some way. Specialist doctors like orthopaedic doctors can bulk bill refer for MRIs. The trouble with this is, in order to see this specialist you will need to be referred by your GP. The cost of seeing your GP to gain this referral, plus the cost of the specialist appointment will likely end up costing you anywhere between $350-500. You can also expect to wait up to six weeks before the specialist is available to see you.

Whilst you might get a free MRI referral this way, it has still cost you quite a sum of money. The potential waiting period may also significantly reduce your chances of optimum rehabilitation of your injury in question. Is there not another way?

Another way of getting an MRI?

One of the GPs I network with in my area was kind enough to provide me with information about a select few cases where GPs have authority to bulk bill refer for MRIs. See the following infographic:

It explains the select few conditions for patients over 16 years and under 16 years of age where they can be bulk bill referred by their GPs for an MRI scan. Remember however that it is at the GPs discretion as to whether your condition will qualify for one of the eligible diagnoses. Be warned that whilst you may think what you have qualifies for a bulk billed referral, your GP may disagree.

Whats the quickest way?

I have found the quickest way for patients to obtain an MRI is to consult with a primary health care practitioner, regardless of whether it is a physiotherapist, GP or chiropractor, etcetera, and ask for a written referral. The patient can then simply call a radiology clinic and book themselves in as a paying patient.

MRIs cost roughly between $300-350 for a private paying patient. Whilst this cost is significant, you will have the best image available to you to assist in diagnosing your condition. At this point you may choose to continue conservative care with your chiropractor or physiotherapist, for example. Thereafter, if you still need to see a specialist, you will at least be able to present to this person with recent MRI scans.

Many times when patients consult with specialists for the first time, they are referred for MRI scans. They are then asked to return to the specialist for another consultation with the completed scans and radiology report so that a proper diagnosis and treatment plan can be advised. The result is the patient incurs the cost of two specialist consultations during this time (another $350-500).

Sadly, the cost of an MRI is expensive in whatever way you choose to go about getting one. They are however, the gold standard in soft tissue imaging and therefore, in most cases, the best way to image injuries to the body. If you choose to go about getting an MRI scan as aprivate patient, remember to shop around the various radiology clinics and inquire about the cost as they do differ from place to place.

Please note that you cannot obtain an MRI from our clinic. MRI’s can be obtained from any major hospital or Radiology clinic.

Best of luck!

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.