No, Health Imaging Is Not Trailing Behind Health IT

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 - Dave Pearson
Dave Pearson

The computerization and integration of healthcare is moving forward at a rapid pace right now, and it’s not exactly flying below the radar. From mHealth to health-specific AI, from patient portals to portable patient data—to any of half a dozen other areas of techno-advancement currently generating buzz—it sometimes seems as though anything and everything having to do with HIT is a hit. 

This momentum is all very exciting, but sometimes lost in the din is that the fine science of medical imaging isn’t exactly standing on the sidelines. In fact, 122 years after Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of the x-ray, breakthroughs are still being made at the modality level. Some research even involves completely rethinking how diagnostic images can be captured from patients and presented to radiologists.

A multisite, multidisciplinary project underway in Europe fits into this category. Physicists, optical engineers, bioengineers and others in France and Portugal, for starters, are working to make computed tomography obsolete.1 Their blueprint involves rendering 3D images from single x-ray exposures. To pull it off, they’re using experimental lens-and-mirror configurations, specialized detectors and image-reconstruction algorithms. 

So far, the team has only demonstrated the concept on simple objects like wine corks. And its members admit that years of research lie ahead before they’ll be able to trial the technique on anything as complex as a human anatomic structure in vivo. But the work is spurred and funded in no small part by concerns over radiation dose in CT. Those aren’t going away. Nor is the writing on the wall: If this particular 3D imaging method doesn’t one day displace CT, someone somewhere will eventually find one that does.

Meanwhile, MRI may make it through the Image Safely era unscathed, but it too is being rethought from head to toe—literally. Tech whiz Mary Lou Jepsen, PhD, who attained a measure of fame with Facebook/Oculus and Google X, has trained her sights on wearable MRI. Her new company is looking to make a splash by introducing movement-forgiving shirts, skullcaps and perhaps socks or stockings. Jepsen says her approach will use holograms to produce MR images far more inexpensively and with no falloff in image quality. 

For that, it’s hard to imagine any startup will be able to top another major advance at the modality level, this one less science fiction than overdue fact: the FDA’s approval, in October, of a 7T MRI machine for clinical use in head and extremity imaging. The scanner is so powerful for brain imaging, it will allow neuroradiologists to see the structures of the cortex in detail as fine as a grain of sand. This will be a boon in the ongoing challenge to identify markers of encroaching dementia well before symptoms set in. Other MR manufacturers will likely enter this arena, and in some cases 7T is likely to give molecular imaging, including PET/MR, a run for its money. 

Health IT deserves the glory it’s getting, of course, but medical imaging is hardly playing catch-up.  

Reference:

1. Denis Loctier, “Plenoptic x-rays: an alternative to CT scans.” Euronews.com, Oct 16 2017.