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An ECR for the books

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The European Congress of Radiology played out this year in Vienna amid a surprisingly large crowd, milling at junctures in the weaving maze of expo areas A, C, and D, which to the discomfiture of some seemed to skip B. Attendance was supposed to be down some 30% this year, an expectation discredited by the crush of people that made getting to where you were going on time a feat requiring a few minutes' head start.

By the last day, ECR 2009 had scored a record 18,200 attendees from 97 countries. The question was, why? Did no one tell the European imaging community that we were in the midst of an economic meltdown? The answer to this question may be found where the U.S. and modern capitalism are headed.

While most of the investments currently made in U.S. medical imaging come from private sources, European healthcare is driven mostly by governments whose budgets were approved last year. This, according to some pundits, has made European providers impervious to the economic slings and arrows that have felled purchases thought to be coming from U.S. institutions.

So it was that Europeans came to the ECR, their government-stoked coffers full and ready to be spent. But there may have been more to it than just that, another dimension to the European imaging community that the U.S. does not have: Eastern Europe. Still lagging far behind their Western neighbors, these countries cannot afford to stop spending if they are to help their citizens achieve a standard of care even close to the broader European standards. Toward that end, apparently, Eastern European countries have a cushion of sorts, as their efforts to pull themselves up to Western standards are partially funded with subsidies from the European Union -- money that was, again, budgeted last year.

These factors and the usual arguments, the need for better productivity and efficiency, prodded those attending the ECR to move into and around exhibits replete with promises that the compact ultrasound scanners, low-dose CTs, and friendly MR would make a difference in the care they provide. A Smart Pod welcomed passersby in four languages; kaffee klatches fueled CT presentations a few steps away; lanky models, some sporting blue gel in anticipation of the touch of a transducer, provided the ideal environment for diagnostic ultrasound, each feature a tribute to an uncertain future.

If the reasons for the packed ECR exhibits were found in the laggardly response of socialized medicine to the economic malaise, will next year's ECR do as well? Only next year will tell.

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