DICOM Turns 25 (Or, is it 15?)

DICOM Turns 25 (Or, is it 15?)

Of course, if you don’t know what DICOM is, you probably don’t care whether it turned 25 or 15 – unless you’ve had or might need a CT scan, an electrocardiogram, an MRI, some radiation therapy, an X-ray, or an ultrasound exam.  DICOM, which stands for Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine, is the name of an independent, international standard whose primary purpose is to enable each piece of medical imaging equipment to work with other ones – no matter which company manufactured them or where they might be located.  In other words, the image acquired with manufacturer A’s device can be stored on a computer system from manufacturer B, printed on equipment from manufacturer C, and viewed on a computer monitor from manufacturer D by an appropriately authorized individual anywhere in the world.


The need for such “interoperable” systems was recognized soon after computer networks were developed back in the 1970s.  At that time, each manufacturer would produce its own suite of equipment that utilized proprietary connections.  But hospitals and imaging centers wanted to be able to choose what ever they considered to be the best device for each particular purpose with the expectation that it would work with all of their existing equipment.  A standard was needed to define how the various pieces of equipment would connect to one another so that they could pass images and their related information back and forth. 


Twenty-five years ago, in 1983, NEMA’s medical equipment manufacturers joined together with representatives from the American College of Radiology to establish a committee that would address this need.  Unfortunately, their first product (completed in 1985) did not meet the market’s needs.  Nor did the second standard that they issued in 1988.  Then, 15 years ago, in the fall of 1993, they conducted a successful demonstration of interoperability at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.  The product of this third effort was called DICOM 3.0. 


Unlike most other standards, which may be updated every five to ten years, new supplements to the DICOM standard are issued four to five times per year, so it, now, “weighs in” at more than 3300 pages.  These are integrated into a comprehensive new volume about once each year.  It is available free of any charge on the DICOM Web page (http://dicom.nema.org).  Another unusual characteristic of the DICOM Standard is that newer versions do not “replace” older versions.  They just cover more and more kinds of equipment or technologies.  Of course, smaller editorial-type corrections are made from time to time either to correct errors or to explain something more clearly.


These 15- and 25-year anniversaries were celebrated early in April of 2008 when the DICOM Standards Committee held its first-ever meeting and conference in mainland China.  


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