A contingent of medical-image management vendors had a message for budding regional health systems last week: When you computerize, don't forget to digitize.
Hospitals and other healthcare providers nationwide have begun to tally the task of recording and transferring information that once was written down and passed hand to hand around an institution.
The need to transfer such written information within and among facilities has fueled interest in clinical data systems and in technology that routes clinical and financial information to where it's needed.
But the arsenal of diagnostic data in any facility also includes X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans, ultrasound images and standard photos, said John Vanden Brink, managing partner of Technology Marketing Group, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based firm specializing in medical imaging.
Somehow, those images are going to have to get to a range of attending and referring physicians as well as radiologists, all in short order. A number of large companies, from defense contractors to diversifying hard-copy suppliers, promoted computer systems to fill that bill at last week's Radiological Society of North America annual convention in Chicago.
The image-capture and transfer systems are an evolution of technology known as PACS, or picture archiving and communication systems. Several years ago, PACS offerings were slanted toward storage and retrieval of images in digital form, but hospitals were scared off by price tags of $3 million and up for high-capacity systems (Dec. 6, 1993, p. 16).
New systems are slanted toward the quick and multiple availability of digitized images and the capacity to ship them to other sites in a network over dedicated fiber-optic transmission lines, Mr. Vanden Brink said.
Vendors also are trying to make their systems "scalable" in response to both current concerns about initial cost and eventual concerns that such systems must be able to serve more comprehensive networkwide needs, said Anthony A. Lombardo, senior vice president and general manager of Loral Medical Systems.
The San Jose, Calif., vendor of image management for the Defense Department's healthcare network is looking for a foothold in hospitals by marketing first in areas where image delivery is most important, such as emergency departments, intensive-care units and outpatient operations. From that beachhead, the system can be justified and eventually broadened, Mr. Lombardo said.
But getting healthcare decisionmakers interested in such a plan is still an uphill climb, Mr. Vanden Brink said.
A computed radiography system linking an emergency room with the radiology department and a remote clinic site can now be bought for $300,000 to $400,000, but information system professionals often aren't as versed in imaging as they are in other data systems. "Hospitals are hiding behind the cost-justification issue because they don't understand (image management) or they have some other priorities in mind," he said.