A New PACS and a Different Way To Brush Your Teeth

April 26, 2021
Eric Postal, MD

Adaptation to change is key to growth—both personal and professional.

My radiology group went live with part of a new software suite this past week. Another component is imminently joining it.

My experience with changing software interfaces has mostly been limited to starting new jobs. Getting the hang of a new-to-me PACS, RIS, etc. becomes indistinguishable from the novelty of everything else that comes with a new position.

But in the absence of such global change, a rejiggered workstation can make it feel like one’s productivity train has been derailed. The buttons have all moved around, some are hidden or entirely missing, and for every labor-saver (“Oh, I don’t have to do X anymore…that’s nice”) there seems to be a new wrinkle necessitating extra clicks.

Still, all the basic functionality is there; it’s just a matter of learning how to get to what you need. There’s no realistic way someone can “train” you comprehensively enough that you’ll hit the ground running without missing a step. The interface being something like a digital extension of yourself, I mused that this might be akin to having a new pair of hands installed. Even the Six Million Dollar Man surely had a breaking-in period.

It reminded me of a notion I’d heard once or thrice that one could boost one’s brain by intentionally seeking situations where previously habitual/autopilot behaviors required greater mindfulness. For instance, using one’s non-dominant hand for routine tasks like brushing teeth. Go ahead and try; it won’t be the most monumental effort of your day, but the process will demand substantially more from you than usual. Stick with it long enough and you’ll get proficient.

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It made sense to a lot of people: If you exercise a part of your brain in ways that you previously haven’t, it rises to the challenge and adapts. And, maybe, there‘s some spillover of strengthening to other areas of the brain.

Sadly, researchers came along to spoil the fun with pronouncements that there was “no evidence” that such collateral enhancement occurred. Practicing wrong-handed toothbrushing made you better at brushing with the other hand, but didn’t measurably do anything else for you.

So, is adapting to a new radiology workstation interface a different story? Or is learning to use it its only reward? It feels like we should gain some benefit by going through the disruptive transition.

One expects that the new software, itself, has some advantages over the old rig. Even if the radiologist doesn’t directly see it, perhaps greater efficiency is going on behind the scenes. Perhaps it simply abides by new regulatory requirements. All of this might make sense to the radiologist if explained to him, but he’d probably be more satisfied with the experience if he knew that he’d personally gain from his technological growing-pains.

There is, of course, a very basic benefit of learning a new PACS/RIS/etc., same as with learning to brush your teeth with the other hand: Previously, you had one skill (your old PACS, or brushing with your dominant hand), but now you have two. You’re a little more future-proofed. If your dominant hand gets injured or otherwise taken out of the action, your toothbrushing won’t be impacted. Or, if you wind up switching jobs to work in another radiology facility that uses your old PACS, you’ll be able to jump right in.

It also seems reasonable that learning to use a new software suite would make a radiologist more capable of learning additional new systems subsequently. “Learning how to learn” is a thing, as is becoming more comfortable with adapting to new situations.

Above and beyond that, there is only so much that can differ between one PACS and another. Software designers are, after all, aiming for the same things: maximum functionality, user-friendliness, etc. Their metaphorical arrows are all clustered relatively near the bullseye of a “perfect” product, so a radiologist moving from one to the other gets to know the neighborhood. The more systems a radiologist experiences, the less jarring it should be when they’re introduced to a new one.

Taking it a step further, suppose a radiologist comes to know a bunch of different PACS. Not just sitting down and playing around for a few minutes, but actually doing full-time work to the point of a deep familiarity with their strengths and weaknesses. At some point or another, that radiologist goes from being merely versatile to something of a PACS expert. He knows the features (and flaws). He might become precisely the sort of person a software manufacturer recruits to help develop their next PACS. Heck, he might assemble his own team to create something that the field has thus far failed to.

Putting aside such lofty aspirations, a radiologist having to adapt to a new software system might just reframe things in a cheerier light. Instead of being vexed by the forced adaptation, he chooses to see it as an engaging way to make things new and interesting; for the next few workdays/weeks, he’s got that much more to mentally engage him.

Follow Editorial Board member Eric Postal, M.D., on Twitter: @EricPostal_MD.