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Filmless radiology method increases efficiency, quality

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When ultrasound technologist Kent Meador completes an ultrasound image, physicians in the next room can view it immediately on a computer screen. A news release from St. John's Health System said the reason is that ultrasound is the first form of radiology imaging at St. John's to use computerized images exclusively.

The new method of filmless radiology enables sonographers to produce computerized electronic images without X-ray film.

"Patients leave ultrasound 15 to 20 minutes earlier because of the decrease in paperwork attached to a person's X-ray film," Meador said. "The reproduction of the image is actually better and physicians can see it quicker, without having to wait for us to develop the image."

Since World War I, X-ray images have been captured on film. Storing and transporting these images takes time. In the future, computerized electronic images will make it possible to send images to other hospitals and physicians' offices for immediate review. The images will be stored as part of the patient's electronic medical record.

"This is a good step for us," said Eddie Terrill, director of St. John's radiology services. "Our goal is to improve the service, make it better, faster. Going filmless is one step toward that goal."

The AEGIS Sonography Management System in use at St. John's is what is known as a mini-PACS, which stands for picture archiving system. The other modalities in radiology, including CT, magnetic resonance imaging and X-rays, will eventually have their own PACS systems, Terrill said.

"It will be a period of two to three years before we will be there," Terrill said. "Our goal is to be more efficient with services to be provided more rapidly so as to improve care."

It takes three to four seconds to get a digital ultrasound image. The images are backed up to an extended online server and then on to optical disks. The database allows viewers to search files by name or various other queries. Meador said this is a big improvement over the handwritten log he formerly used.

A software program called Web Pro allows authorized users to view the images via Netscape on their computer workstations.

Meador expects that within a year, places such as the emergency room, labor and delivery, neonatal intensive care unit and the OB/GYN offices will have computer stations to view ultrasound images.

The good news for patients, according to the St. John's release, is that digital images are better quality than those on film because they don't lose a generation of reproduction.

Terrill said he foresees a time when the radiology department will no longer have a file room, but will instead keep all images stored on computer backup systems that authorized health professionals can access along with a patient's medical record. As with any medical record, security methods have been designed to protect patient privacy and confidentiality.

Digital images also allow for tele-radiology.

"It will allow a rural hospital to have radiologist coverage 24 hours per day, seven days per week," Terrill said. "It will also allow health professionals to make medical decisions quicker, thereby improving care."

The quicker system allows sono-graphers and other technologists to spend more time with the patients and less time with paperwork.

"It gives me more time to do what I'm trained to do," Meador said.

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