Background and purpose: Marked reductions in imaging exams have been documented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study aimed to examine the effect of the two waves of COVID-19 on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) utilization at the national and regional level. Materials and methods: A retrospective-archive study was conducted in Israel, comparing March–December 2020 with March–December 2018 and 2019. Data on MRI utilization were obtained from the national MRI registry, while data on confirmed COVID-19 cases, by place of residence, were obtained from the Israeli Ministry of Health open COVID-19 database. Results: The number and rate of MRI examinations decreased during the first COVID-19 wave, with the steepest drop in April 2020: 47.5% relative decrease compared to April 2019, and 42.2% compared to 2018. This was followed by a compensatory increase between the waves and a return to almost pre-pandemic levels of use, with just a modest decrease, during the second, more intense COVID wave, compared with the previous year. Existing differences between regions increased during the pandemic. The rate ratio of MRI exams between Tel-Aviv and the Northern periphery increased from 2.89 in April 2019 to 3.94 in April 2020. Jerusalem metropolitan region, with the largest burden of COVID disease, demonstrated only a modest decrease (1%) in MRI utilization during the first 10 months of the pandemic. Conclusions: At the national level, time trends in reduced MRI utilization followed the first wave of COVID-19, and were accompanied by increased regional disparities. These changes were not explained by differences in the burden of COVID-19 disease but might be explained by unequal distribution of MRI scanners among regions. Reduced utilization was not evident during the second wave, nor at the beginning of the third wave, despite higher COVID-19 case load, demonstrating adaptation to the new normal. Patterns of MRI utilization might help policy-makers and healthcare managers predict the behavior of imaging as well as other sectors, such as elective surgical procedures, during an ongoing pandemic. This forecast might help to manage the lasting effects of the pandemic, including extended waiting times, in the months and years following its remission. In preparation for future national emergencies, timely and detailed data on MRI utilization can serve as a “sensor” for a wide array of diagnostic and interventional medical activities, providing policy-makers with an updated snapshot to guide their response at the regional and national levels.
- Wave, Disparity, MRI exam