By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
BOARDMAN -- The headache was severe, it was a weekend, and Shawn Smith was very worried.
An owner of Physicians MRI Institute, he decided to take his wife, Angela, to the company's Boardman office for an MRI scan of her head and neck.
Technicians e-mailed the results to radiologists at the Cleveland Clinic who pinpointed the problem within minutes.
The diagnosis: a dissected carotid artery, a tear inside the artery wall known as a significant cause of stroke in people under 40. Smith rushed his wife to a hospital where doctors began treatment immediately and the tear healed over time.
Mrs. Smith is doing fine.
It's a recent, real-life story that Smith, 39, and his partner, Michael Rotunno, 36, use to explain why they started Physicians MRI Institute and why they're confident the business will succeed.
The company's key selling point, Rotunno said, is that its MRI centers on Youngstown-Warren Road in Niles and on Tiffany Boulevard in Boardman are tied directly to highly specialized radiologists at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic.
And just as important, in some cases, is Physicians MRI's rapid report capability -- the centers promise scan results within 24 hours, but one-hour results are done by request.
"In my wife's case, it might have taken days to get on a schedule for an MRI somewhere else, and that could have been too late," Smith said.
A general radiologist might not have identified the problem at all because it is rare, he said. "A general radiologist might see it five times a year, but a subspecialist at [Cleveland] Clinic might see it several times a day," he said. "That makes a big difference."
Rotunno and Smith share ownership of the business with two local radiologists, Dr. Robert Rodgers in Niles and Dr. Dean Ball in Boardman, and Dr. James Goettsch, a retired radiologist.
That gives them the advantage of having doctors on site who can read MRI scans and discuss results with patients one-on-one.
Some patients and doctors prefer to have their MRI results read locally, while others prefer to use the specialized radiologists at the Cleveland Clinic. In that case, technicians use a sophisticated computer software system to send the MRI scan images to the clinic over the Internet.
Agreement with clinic
Physicians MRI has a professional interpretation agreement with the Cleveland medical center. "That's what makes us unique," Rotunno said.
Clinic radiologists are highly specialized, the owners explained.
While a general radiologist might read a wide range of MRIs, X-rays, ultrasounds and barium enema results, he said, a clinic subspecialist would spend the entire work day reading nothing but stomach MRIs or bone and joint MRIs.
"Cleveland is a major referral hospital. It's where doctors go when they have a difficult or unusual case," Dr. Ball said. "Here, the connection is streamlined. "
Distance is not a problem, he said. The doctors and technicians use a quick-message computer system to communicate with the clinic radiologists before and after forwarding scan results. They can repeat scans immediately to get a better view or angle, if necessary.
The five partners have invested more than $3 million on the MRI machinery for their two local offices.
Rotunno, a Lowellville native who now lives in Poland, started his career as a radiological technician after earning an associate degree in radiological technology from Youngstown State University. Later, as he became more interested in the business side of the radiology field, he earned a bachelor's degree in business management at YSU.
Smith, a Canton resident and Alliance native, earned a bachelor's degree in accounting and a master's degree in taxation from Akron University. He worked five years as a tax accountant before joining a mobile MRI business as its chief financial officer.
Smith was a senior vice president at a national mobile MRI company and Rotunno was working with him when the two decided to break away and start their own business. They opened the first Physicians MRI Institute center in Niles in 2002 and opened the Boardman center a year later.
Since then, the partners have inked a management agreement for an MRI facility in Kentucky and opened a $3.2 million center featuring a new cancer diagnosis technology in Long Island, N.Y. Their company also manages a mobile MRI system for a group of Kentucky hospitals and recently bought the Warren Radiology Practice.
They wouldn't reveal sales figures, but Smith said their business has increased between 30 percent and 40 percent over 2003 totals.
The partners' newest offering is breast MRI scans, offered at the Boardman office only. They believe Physicians MRI is the first in the area to provide the service.
Dr. Ball, who also owns Tiffany Breast Care Center and Mahoning Valley Imaging, said MRI breast scans do not replace mammograms but can provide physicians with additional information. The technology is useful for women who have dense breast tissue or a family history of breast cancer, he said, or to help locate smaller lesions when a breast biopsy comes out positive.