MRI Installation Slip Disables Hospital iOS Devices

Posted on November 9, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare branding and communications expert with more than 25 years of industry experience. and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also worked extensively healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

The following is the story of an MRI installation which took a surprising turn. According to a recent post on Reddit which has since gone viral in the IT press, a problem with the installation managed to shut down and completely disable every iOS-based device in the facility.

A few weeks ago, Erik Wooldridge of  Chicago’s Morris Hospital, a perplexed member of the r/sysadmin subreddit, posted the following:

This is probably the most bizarre issue I’ve had in my career in IT. One of our multi-practice facilities is having a new MRI installed and apparently something went wrong when testing the new machine. We received a call near the end of the day from the campus that none of their cell phones work after testing [the] MRI… After going out there we discovered that this issue only impacted iOS devices. iPads, iPhones, and Apple Watches were all completely disabled.

According to Wooldridge, the outage affected about 40 users. Many of the affected devices were completely dead. Others that could power on seemed to have issues with the cellular radio, though the Wi-Fi connections continued to work. Over time, the affected devices began to recover, but one iPhone had severe service issues after the incident, and while some of the Apple Watches remained on, the touchscreens hadn’t begun working after several days.

At first, Morris and his colleagues feared that the outage could be due to an electromagnetic pulse, a terrifying possibility which could’ve meant very bad things for its data center. Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the problem.

Later the vendor, GE, told the poster and his colleagues that the problem was a leakage of liquid helium used for the MRI’s superconducting magnets. GE engineers turned out to be right that the leak was the source of the problems, but couldn’t explain why Android devices were untouched by the phenomenon.

Eventually, a blogger named Kyle Wiens with iFixit.org seems to found an explanation for why iOS devices were hit so hard by the helium leak. Apparently, even Apple admits that exposing iPhones to evaporating liquefied gases such as helium could take them offline.

While no one’s suggesting that liquefied helium is good for any type of microelectronic device, the bottom line seems to be that the iOS devices are more sensitive to this effect than the Android devices. Let’s hope most readers never need to test this solution out.