AIM: To discuss the ability of pre-operative MRI to have a beneficial effect on surgical performance and treatment outcome in patients with rectal cancer. METHODS: A description on how MRI can be used as a tool so select patients for differentiated neoadjuvant treatment, how it can be used as an anatomical road map for the resection of locally advanced cases, and how it can serve as a tool for quality assurance of both the surgical procedure and overall patient management. As an illustration the proportion of microscopically complete resections of the period 1993-1997, when there was no routine pre-operative imaging, is compared to that of the period 1998-2002, when pre-operative MR imaging was standardized. RESULTS: The proportion of R0 resections increased from 92.5 to 97% (p=0.08) and the proportion of resections with a lateral tumour free margin of >1mm increased from 84.4 to 92.1% (p=0.03). The incomplete resections in the first period were mainly due to inadequate surgical management of unsuspected advanced or bulky tumours, whereas in the second period insufficient consideration was given to extensive neoadjuvant treatment when the tumour was close to or invading the mesorectal fascia on MR. CONCLUSIONS: There are good indications that in our setting pre-operative MR imaging, along with other improvements in rectal cancer management, had a beneficial effect on patient outcome. Audit and discussion of the incomplete resections can lead to an improved operative and perioperative management.