Autonomous scanners: The future of remote diagnostics?

May 10, 2010

Nearly two decades have passed since the makers of imaging equipment began servicing equipment remotely. This revolutionary concept was a reaction to threats mounted by former field technicians of the giant equipment makers, self-styled entrepreneurs who promised to keep MR and CT scanners running at half the price charged by their previous employers.

Nearly two decades have passed since the makers of imaging equipment began servicing equipment remotely. This revolutionary concept was a reaction to threats mounted by former field technicians of the giant equipment makers, self-styled entrepreneurs who promised to keep MR and CT scanners running at half the price charged by their previous employers.

Efforts to thwart these upstarts, the independent service organizations, by refusing to sell replacement parts and test equipment to ISOs spawned a cottage industry of third-party suppliers, as it antagonized ISOs and customers, who perceived big vendors as cutting prices on capital equipment only to milk them on service contracts.

The vendors’ answer was to develop and apply technology that ISOs could not. Their need spawned a revolution of remote diagnostics bearing names such as GE’s InSite and Picker’s TelePath. These technologies linked distant service centers to scanners by phone, allowing remote staff to fix problems or issue urgent service calls to field engineers. Eventually remote diagnostics would predict trouble before it occurred, allowing preventive maintenance that fed extraordinarily effective marketing claims of 99% uptime for facilities that signed on to extended service contracts.

Independent service providers and their parts providers remain, but their influence has been markedly reduced. More than 60% of all imaging equipment onsite service agreements with hospitals are contracted with the makers of the equipment, according to market analysis firm IMV. No third-party parts provider has more than 15% of the market for replacement parts, according to IMV.

But what the future might hold for remote-access technologies may be more astounding than its past. Teleradiology has reshaped the radiology community as acquired scans are interpreted half world away. Just as the prospect of lower costs and labor shortages spurred teleradiology, so might these forces shape a brave new world that combines the capabilities of remote control and teleradiology.

The seeds of this possibility were planted already five years ago by Siemens with the introduction of its Expert-i, which allows an expert to take over an MR console using a PC while patients are being scanned. With the necessary software and a high-speed connection, patient setup, sequences, and imaging data can be viewed and controlled remotely in real-time.

The same principle is behind unmanned drones that patrol the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, one that military leaders want to build upon with legions of unmanned and largely autonomous supersonic aircraft to fight future wars.

If the occasion arises, as it did 20 years ago for remote diagnostics, those technologies could radically change the practice of radiology, giving birth to smart scanners under the guidance of remotely located experts, as technologists help patients on and off tables.