Advantages of Teleradiology

What is teleradiology? This virtually indispensable branch of telemedicine has become a solid driver of value and growth opportunity for many practices.

Teleradiology refers to the practice of a radiologist interpreting medical images while not physically present in the location where the images are generated. Hospitals, mobile imaging companies, urgent care facilities, and private practices utilize teleradiology.

Teleradiology is the electronic transmission of medical imaging studies CT, MRI, or X-Ray from one location to another. For this process to be implemented, three essential components are required:

  1. An image sending station
  2. A transmission network
  3. A receiving/image review station

History of Teleradiology

Teleradiology dates back to 1947 with the successful transmission of radiographic images through telephone lines. Before the advent of digital radiography (DR), images were acquired and viewed on sheets of film that were placed on a light box for interpretation. Digital images dramatically changed this practice and paved the way for viewing images on computer monitors and manipulating them in ways that were not possible with film.

Teleradiology, like every other branch of telemedicine, owes its birth to an imbalance of demand and supply. Historically, the main driver for teleradiology was the need for after-hours coverage for urgent and emergent radiologic studies, however, in 2019, we saw the abundant growth and pressing need for teleradiology due to the coronavirus.

Telemedicine and Teleradiology During The Pandemic

The rapid spread of the coronavirus highlighted the value of telemedicine solutions, as a means of limiting person-to-person contact. This included the use of teleradiology tools to read images and communicate with referring physicians. Telemedicine provides continuity of care within healthcare facilities and patients, while also allowing safe distance without sacrificing the quality of care. In the past, telehealth was primarily offered to patients in underserved areas and for follow-up appointments for patients with established care, however, COVID-19 has given physicians a runway to extend virtual care to a greater portion of the patient population.

More provider organizations are embracing the remote radiology model, with radiologists working from home. And some in the field believe this trend could continue in the future. Several advances in teleradiology have made this option possible for the long term: the healthcare cloud, vendor-neutral archives, and Artificial Intelligence (AI.).

These technologies are reported to have led to reduced workload on radiologists, faster turn-around time for patients, and cost savings for hospitals. For hospitals, teleradiology presents an attractive alternative to having staff radiologists available twenty-four hours a day.

Benefits of Teleradiology:

  • More efficient use of radiology infrastructure. Hospitals focused on general radiological services can use teleradiology to send complex images to major medical centers for evaluation. In addition, clinical radiologists can seek a second opinion from a specialist without transferring the patient, thus minimizing patient discomfort and improving the efficiency of service delivery.
  • Cost savings. Teleradiology solutions eliminate the need for travel and allow radiologists to work from anywhere that is most convenient and cost-efficient. Hospitals of all sizes can benefit from the strategic use of teleradiology solutions. Reduced radiology costs, immediate imaging results, and improved access all make a hospital more competitive and better able to serve the needs of their patients.
  • Improved access to care. Teleradiology plays a significant role in improving service to rural areas and has the potential to alleviate the current shortage of radiologists, providing access to subspecialty radiologists in regions where healthcare disparities arise. For example, Dicom Systems has supported the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) in its teleradiology work for many years. As an acute, specialty, primary, and behavioral healthcare provider, ANMC provides comprehensive medical services to Alaska Native and American Indian people living in the state. More than 60% of ANMC’s patients live in rural communities and depend on telehealth and teleradiology for their diagnostic services.
  • Time savings. Teleradiology solutions enable radiologists to have immediate access to medical images over the internet via secure telecommunication links. This results in much faster access to highly specialized medical imaging reports and consultative services, all while limiting costs and overhead.
  • After hour service. Teleradiology allows medical facilities to provide around the clock coverage while relieving the radiologists from the burden of being on-call at night.

Teleradiology Standards

One of the key factors in the adoption of teleradiology was the introduction of standards. Although some modalities (X-ray machines, MRIs, CTs) produced films or digital images that could be scanned into a digital image, displaying the digital copies on machines made by other manufacturers was very difficult. In 1983, The National Electrical Manufacturers Association and American College of Radiology joined forces and created an open standard for medical images to be digitally stored. The ACR/NEMA 300 standard had some limitations and problems that didn’t lead to manufacturers adopting it broadly.

A second version of this standard was released in 1988. It is usually called ACR/NEMA V2.0. With this version, the images were transmitted through using a dedicated 2 cable (the EIA-485). The standard was accepted more widely, with the standard being supported by companies like 3M, Vortech (which is now Kodak), Siemens Medical Systems, Merge Technologies, General Electric Medical Systems and DeJarnette Research Systems.

The third version of this standard was released in 1993, and was called DICOM. Standard network support was added with this edition, which finally made teleradiology truly possible.

In 1994, The American College of Radiology published its first teleradiology standard, an important step in the practice of teleradiology becoming legitimized.

Today, almost 30 years later, we are still advocating for universal industry standards, as a prerequisite to the next frontier of teleradiology: AI.