2 key trends driving the future of medical imaging (and 3 to keep an eye on)

Artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are two titanic trends driving the future of medical imaging, according to an in-depth analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. The study’s authors also assessed other trends that continue to gain momentum.

“The medical device industry is undergoing rapid change as innovation accelerates, new business models emerge, and AI and the Internet of Things create disruptive possibilities in health care,” wrote author Alan Alexander, MD, and colleagues from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company in New York City.

AI and blockchain: Leaders of the pack

Alexander et al. used data to explore the current state of the medical imaging industry and observed that AI and machine learning (ML) are, not surprisingly, the hottest ticket in town.

“This cluster has the greatest number of startups (32), the highest volume of investor transactions (more than $500 million), the greatest revenue, and strong investor interest and potential for further growth,” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, there has been keen interest from radiologists in improving work efficiency, given the number of specialty-specific publications, presentations, and opinion articles in this space.”

A lot of the companies in this space specialize in one specific modality, they added, with 22 percent of companies focused on CT and another 13 percent each focused on MRI and mammography.

“CT and mammography lend themselves most readily to AI because attenuation information can be used in the learning algorithms,” the authors wrote. “Other modalities present challenges: the interpretation of multisequence images in MRI, the user variability in ultrasound, and 2-D limitations in x-rays.”

AI and ML have the ability to help specialists interpret studies more quickly and some algorithms can even detect abnormalities “not readily visible to the human eye.” These technologies can also help with cost savings, the researchers noted, due to how they can prevent unnecessary readmissions and cut down on wasteful imaging.

Blockchain, on the other hand, is even newer than AI and ML. The authors noted numerous ways blockchain can help radiology.

“It could help prevent the kind of data breaches that have recently occurred in health care and, if breaches do occur, blockchain can enable continued functioning after the event,” they wrote. “The technology is likely to underpin further use cases for cyber- and data security in concert with data sharing, as well as AI computing through the use of ML algorithms across distributed ledgers. Blockchain will also support the distribution of graphics processing units to drive AI analysis and analytics and facilitate further ML endeavors.”

Another key reason blockchain is so important is that it can help imaging providers with the massive amount of data they are required to maintain and securely share with patients and other physicians. Blockchain has already helped the banking industry with its own “large data needs,” and it could do the same for medical imaging.

3 additional trends to keep an eye on

  1. 3D visualization, virtual reality and image-guided intervention: Startups in this space have been around for a long time and raised significant funds, the authors wrote. 3D printing, surgical simulation platforms and surgical prosthetics are just three examples of why these technologies are getting more and more attention throughout the industry.
  1. Intraoperative technologies: Alexander and colleagues warned all businesses serving imaging professionals that this is an area rapidly growing in importance. “Imaging is becoming a crucial aspect of intra-operative planning and execution, particularly for applications requiring extensive data acquisition in real time,” the authors wrote. “It can enhance precision during surgical interventions and improve outcomes. Intra-operative techniques span all modalities, including ultrasound, MRI, and fluoroscopy, and they often require portable capabilities.”
  1. Nuclear imaging: “As nuclear imaging grows and moves away from metabolic imaging for cancer localization to pathology-specific cancer diagnosis (for instance, the combining of ligands specific to prostate or breast cancer with radioisotopes for definitive diagnosis), imaging companies will have increasing opportunities to engage in cancer diagnostics, and potentially therapeutics as well,” the authors wrote.