Medical Imaging: A Pioneer in an Interoperable World

Medical Imaging: A Pioneer in an Interoperable World

This piece was originally published in the January 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Andrew Northup, Director, Global Affairs, MITA

Interconnectivity, interoperability, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are buzzwords more likely used in reference to an internet network or home theater system rather than medical imaging. However, the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance (MITA), NEMA’s medical imaging division, has been and continues to be a pioneer in connectivity and interoperability.

Digital networks—devices connected to each other over the internet—rely on a basic principle: once you define the “how” and the “what” between devices, anyone willing to design and manufacture devices that communicate just has to use the same definitions.

The first practical, real-world application of the IoT was in the hospital radiology department. The first imaging scanners capable of transmitting information digitally were only capable of being networked—that is, connecting to, communicating with, and understanding other digital devices—with equipment from the same manufacturer. Manufacturers soon realized that the costs far outweighed the benefits and, through MITA, published the first digital interoperability standard, Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM), in 1985.

By defining the necessary characteristics of files to be exchanged and the method by which they would be transmitted between devices, DICOM entered the “what” and the “how” into the digital equation. DICOM set the “what” (the file format) and the “how” (the data transmission protocols), freeing manufacturers and developers to focus on innovating for the sake of public health.

Anyone willing to follow DICOM’s rules for digital interoperability could manufacture magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scanners, ultrasound machines, image viewing systems, healthcare data storage devices, workstations, and peripherals such as printers that could communicate with each other over the internet. DICOM introduced the world to interoperability, starting with CT and MRI scanners, and unleashed the digital revolution that has transformed nearly every aspect of life over the past 30 years.

How interoperability will change our lives in the next 30 years is impossible to know. However, the past can give us valuable perspective. Think back to the days of the newfangled incandescent light bulb in its novel Edison base, or plugging a transistor radio into an electrical outlet. Consider that not long ago retrieving the results from your x-ray scan meant someone had to bring you the images on 10″ × 12″ sheets of film from wherever they were stored to wherever you needed treatment.

Challenges like data privacy, cybersecurity, and network reliability are—and must remain—a top concern for governments, industry, and consumers alike. But if the past teaches us anything, it’s that connectivity breeds innovation, innovation leads to more innovation, and that exciting, world-changing potential is never far off.

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