Technological progress often seems to complicate rather than simplify life.
Hospitals seem particularly vulnerable to drowning in self-made data floods. And few departments are as susceptible as radiology, where each new generation of diagnostic scanners produces more images faster.
"We can acquire images much more quickly than we can assimilate their contents," says Michael Vannier, M.D., radiology chairman at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.
One solution to managing the explosion of clinical information is to make single three-dimensional images from the hundreds of two-dimensional slices routinely produced by the latest computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging machines.
Radiologists-and many referring physicians-say it's easier to visualize complicated pathology by manipulating 3-D images.
An upstart Minneapolis company called Vital Images recently introduced a $70,000 computer workstation that makes the reconstruction of images into 3-D as fast and easy as playing a video game. The company is challenging the makers of big imaging iron that also offer 3-D image reconstruction packages, often with fewer features and at higher prices.
Vannier, also a director at Vital Images, says doctors using the system can shave 15% to 30% off the time taken to interpret complex CT and MRI cases.
The Vital Images system, called Vitrea 1.2, can digest even the largest sets of patient images in less than five minutes. A doctor can then "fly" around, selecting the most-revealing angles or views.
Technical limitations caused earlier CT scanners to yield only a few cases per day that were suitable for the 3-D approach, says Rendon Nelson, M.D., a radiologist at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. In contrast, nearly all the latest MRI and CT scanners produce image sets that are easily reformatted.
"Soon it will be the only way you'll want to look at images," Nelson predicts.