In early November of 1895, a German scientist named Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen made an accidental discovery that would eventually change medicine forever. According to HISTORY.com, Röntgen was initially working with cathode rays and glass when he unwittingly discovered what he later dubbed “X-rays.” Just two years later, X-ray technology was already being employed to make medical diagnoses, uncovering bullets and broken bones in soldiers fighting in the Balkan Wars.

In the decades following Röntgen’s discovery, medical imaging has become much more powerful. Imaging technologies can detect dangerous diseases and give physicians non-invasive means of exploring a patient’s body. Modern radiology is taking these advances even further. New designs and capabilities have allowed medical imaging devices to become smaller and more mobile, and with the onset of the Internet and increased connectivity in healthcare, medical images can be shared among physicians around the world.

Interoperability of a medical image is now a critical challenge for maximizing patient care. In a report issued by the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance, experts stated that part of the ongoing effort to continue to improve patient outcomes ultimately revolves around making sure radiology and imaging capabilities are as current and well-integrated as possible.

Digital storage
The results of a modern MRI or CT scan must be able to be stored and shared digitally, largely because older technologies are much more expensive and time consuming. According to Legal X-ray, the old system of taking an image and printing a physical copy is too costly and labor intensive for modern medicine. The cost of film, dark room equipment and storing images is simply too high.

Even with the advent of CD storage, physically saving images is increasingly obsolete. Having said that, as Health IT reported, hospitals are legally required to retain medical records of all types for years after a patient has been treated. Hospitals simply do not have the space or the time to store thousands of patient images, and recalling or sharing the results of an X-ray or other scan requires delivering actual materials. The adoption of digital radiology allows care centers to still provide cutting edge imaging procedures without the need to convert results into anything tactile.

Digital medical images are efficient and very helpful for physicians.Digital medical images are efficient and very helpful for physicians.

As MITA reported, computers and mobile devices can access medical images anywhere within a modern hospital’s network, and often these devices allow physicians more diagnostic capabilities because the images can be manipulated accordingly. Integrating these images with other electronic patient records is critical for maintaining radiology’s interoperability.

Optimizing connectivity
In order to maximize the capabilities of physicians of different disciplines working together, a patient’s complete health record must be shareable digitally, including radiology results. As Healthcare IT News stated, a crucial consideration for hospitals adopting new electronic health record software is how well they integrate digital medical images. Full connectivity within a hospital network benefits technicians receiving patient referrals, as well as physicians making diagnoses.

For an image to be as efficient as possible, it also should be accessible to a doctor or health professional without navigating multiple, convoluted applications or windows on a computer or tablet. According to Healthcare IT News, digital health solutions are so successful in part because they save hospitals critical time. In the same way that recalling an X-ray on a computer or connected device is much faster than thumbing through stacks of physical images or CDs, having radiology results integrated with a patient’s EHR minimizes the time and effort needed to flip between pages or apps on a screen.

“Imaging interoperability is a key challenge for empowering patients.”

EHRs save time and could lower the risk of human error, a prevalent concern in healthcare, according to the National Institute of Health. In years past, a patient traveling between radiology to the OR or even to see his primary care physician would need to be accompanied by a chart and any physical images. Integrating radiology with digital health records allows a patient to travel between departments and visit with multiple health professionals without any delay or mishap.

Not only do medical images need to be accessible to care providers within a given facility, but part of the challenge moving forward is that radiology results often need to be shared between different hospitals and physicians. Imaging interoperability is a key challenge for empowering patients and improving collaborative healthcare.

Communication between networks
As Information Week reported, KLAS Research found that among 134 surveyed hospitals, there was not clear-cut or preferred approach to image processing technologies or best practices. What this means is hospitals across the country are adopting software that operate on very different internal platforms to store and access patient images.

A challenge moving forward for Health IT professionals and their partners is to ensure that radiology is interoperable across networks so that a patient in Dallas can access his images from Boston without delay or repeat scans. This will give patients more options when seeking treatment and healthcare providers more tools for collaborative efforts.