Image sharing efforts must be more swift

My wife recently had to go through a long, drawn out process of making sure one of her MRI-scans had been transferred from one medical facility to another. The hassle involved, and the time lost in making sure that the scan was successfully exchanged, had her wondering why in 2013 there isn't a more efficient way of transferring images.

And, of course, there is. The Image Share project, which is overseen by the Radiological Society of North America, is a patient-focused network that, among other things, allows radiologists to share medical images with patients. Regional image sharing networks have been established, and states like Maine (which has established a state image archive) are working on systems that will make the exchange of medical images more efficient.

Still, it seems as if this technology isn't being implemented nearly fast enough, particularly as its value becomes increasingly more clear.

A study published this month in the Journal of the American College of Radiology demonstrates, once again, the rewards that come from image sharing. It describes efforts out of Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, which in 2005 implemented a regional virtual private network (VPN) with the goal of using image sharing networks to reduce the number of repeat imaging scans being performed on trauma patients being transferred from institution to another.

That VPN enables 120 participating facilities to share images with one another, and the study showed that the implementation of the VPN substantially lowered CT utilization rates among transferred trauma patients compared to direct-admit patients.

Clearly image sharing can help reduce the number of unnecessary imaging scans, which would result in substantial savings for the healthcare system and, in some cases, eliminate the need for patient exposure to radiation. Yet, expanding the role of image sharing remains a work in progress. According to a study published by Chilmark Research in January 2012, as of the fourth quarter of 2011, just 43 percent of healthcare providers were using image-sharing technology.

What's more, in an opinion piece published last week in AuntMinnie.com, radiologist Sam Friedman wrote that the inability to share images--and therefore eliminate unnecessary imaging--is "completely unacceptable," and approaches malpractice since the technology is available to prevent that repeat imaging.

"Let's all do something about it," Friedman said. "Talk to the radiologists, the IT folks, the clinicians. The time has come to fix this very fixable problem."

Eliminating repeat imaging, particularly in emergency departments, is a particularly frustrating challenge, but the Harborview Medical Center study shows that it can be done. Hopefully, that study can serve as an example for other healthcare systems. - Mike  @FierceHealthIT

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