Ever since Wilhelm Roentgen created the first X-ray image in 1895, few technologies have had more influence on medicine than those related to clinical imaging. It’s pretty remarkable if we compare the MRI, CT, and X-ray technologies of even just 20 years ago with those of today. Rapid innovation is making imaging better and easier. Still, we’re only starting to scratch the surface of some amazing advances that promise to entirely reshape how doctors diagnose and treat patients.
As with all progress, these changes come with new technical and operational challenges. Yet, at a time when the demands on radiology departments are increasing and providers are stretched thin, they can also play a pivotal role in the efficient delivery of a high-quality patient experience. In particular, I believe that four categories have tremendous potential to enhance both provider workflows and patient care: augmented reality, enterprise imaging, artificial intelligence, and mobile apps. Here’s a closer look at each, as well as their possible impacts.
1. Augmented reality (AR)
Unlike virtual reality—which completely immerses users in a virtual world that excludes the physical world—AR places digital elements into a live view of the physical world. That’s an important distinction. It means AR gives us the ability to superimpose digital images (e.g., a CT scan) over real-world objects (e.g., the human body). So, although AR may be most commonly associated with video games such as Pokémon GO, surgeons are finding that it can be an incredibly powerful tool for more precise surgical navigation.
In the past, surgeons have had to fly somewhat blind during procedures. Pinpoint precision is nearly impossible because of the unique variations of each individual patient. Without AR, surgeons can’t be 100% certain that their incision, injection, hardware placement, etc., is as accurate and minimally invasive as possible.
By contrast, AR technology lets surgeons accurately overlay a patient’s own 2D, 3D, or 4D digital images onto their body in the form of a highly detailed hologram. That perspective allows surgeons to plan—and quickly achieve—the most direct route to their objective. With faster and less invasive surgeries, patients should experience fewer complications and better outcomes.
2. Enterprise Imaging
As with so much else in medicine, imaging systems have remained largely segmented and siloed by specialty. Orthopedic images are typically housed in one system with one type of viewer, for example, while cardiovascular images are stored in another archive with a different viewer. In some specialties, such as wound care, images are often printed and scanned into the electronic health record (EHR).
Consequently, providers have to manually search through totally separate archives using disparate technologies to see all of a patient’s images—which, frankly, few have the time or the access to do. That’s what makes enterprise imaging such a game-changer. By bringing all of a patient’s images together in one place with a universal viewer, enterprise imaging relieves the burden on providers. It puts a more complete view of the patient in front of them.
Easier access to more inclusive imaging information not only simplifies providers’ workflows, but it enables more time for direct patient care. In addition, a more holistic view of each patient helps improve diagnoses and treatments.
Finally, enterprise imaging also improves security and HIPAA compliance by putting all images into one secure archive that can be easily managed by the IT department. Currently, most medical facilities must try to manage separate online and offline image archives scattered throughout the entire organization.
3. Artificial intelligence (AI)
So much has been written about AI that sometimes it’s hard to sort fact from fiction. What’s certain, however, is that it has enabled two immense imaging benefits.
First is AI’s ability to help radiologists locate what they’re looking for and see it more clearly. With a big enough database and the right software to enable continuous learning, AI can help the software find and mark anatomical parts that are otherwise difficult to find. Locating the small intestine or a specific vessel, for example, is simpler when AI is used to outline the intestine or vessel within an image.
The second way AI benefits radiologists is by making reads faster. In practice, AI can do a lot to improve efficiency, throughput, and diagnoses by running algorithms through images and flagging areas where radiologists may want to pay close attention. In some cases, it might even help radiologists spot abnormalities that could otherwise go undetected. One AI-based diagnostic tool, for instance, has assisted radiologists with diagnosing COVID-19 in images where it’s sometimes hard to see.
4. Mobile Applications
Imaging has been going mobile for several years. Still, the accelerated use of mobile technologies is making it easier and faster for everyone—radiologists, referring providers, patients—to share and see images. Referring physicians can receive a text message the moment a stat report is done, for example. Plus, universal HTML5 viewers available on any device, at any time, enable timelier image access. Patients can get to their images on their mobile phones as soon as they leave the imaging department.
Speeding imaging workflows across the board can ensure better throughput from a health system perspective. More importantly, however, it can reduce the time patients anxiously wait for their doctors to get the information necessary to develop the best care plans.
At a Turning Point
As noted earlier, such transformative imaging technologies hold their fair share of challenges in addition to their promise. The fact that images are becoming exponentially larger, for instance, requires an increased commitment to secure cloud technology to facilitate transfers. Broadband must keep up, too. Especially in rural areas, inadequate digital transfer and storage capabilities can abruptly negate the benefits of advanced imaging.
Moreover, the number of people going into the medical imaging profession is declining even as imaging volumes are increasing. In some situations, staffing shortages could be just as detrimental as technology shortfalls.
Therefore, we must rethink traditional imaging operations. We must invest in an overarching framework for improved interoperability and information exchange. We must invest in the next generation of imaging professionals, and optimize technology’s impact on provider workflows and patient care.
The industry is quickly approaching a crossroads in its ability to embrace imaging innovations. However, the upside is enormous if we keep the patient experience firmly at the forefront of every impressive new imaging advance.
About Paul Shumway
Paul Shumway is the Senior Vice President of Customer Success and co-founder of Novarad, a leader in the development of medical imaging software.