Fuji takes PACS plans to next level with debut of Synapse NT softwareCompany believes late start will be advantageousFuji Medical Systems USA is planning to break out of its core computed radiography business by entering the PACS market
Company believes late start will be advantageous
Fuji Medical Systems USA is planning to break out of its core computed radiography business by entering the PACS market with a line of Windows NT-based workstations to be unveiled at this month's Radiological Society of North America meeting. The initiative is the culmination of a crash program started by Fuji earlier this year to develop a full line of PACS software in-house.
Fuji, of Stamford, CT, announced on Nov. 12 that it has been developing a line of workstations, called Synapse, that will enable the enterprise-wide distribution of medical images and information. In addition to being based on the increasingly popular Windows NT platform, the Synapse workstations include two new features: cascadable architecture and on-demand image review, which Fuji hopes will distinguish the line from other PACS products on the market.
Fuji sees the PACS market as a natural extension of its activities in CR, where the company's readers are used to digitize conventional x-ray studies for incorporation into PACS networks. By integrating CR with the Synapse workstations, Fuji will be covering the full range of image management, from image capture to viewing and distribution.
Fuji's move into PACS might seem a bit late, as the market already has several large established players, several of whom bought into the business this year through acquisitions. Fuji sees its late arrival as an advantage, however. Unlike other companies, Fuji is not tied to older technology, such as the Unix operating system or a non-DICOM architecture. Such technology may need to be ported to platforms and standards that will dominate healthcare in the future, like Windows NT and DICOM. Developing PACS software from scratch enables Fuji to seamlessly integrate the latest technologies into its code, according to John Strauss, director of marketing for Fuji's Imaging and Information Networks group.
"We've been active as a contributor to the PACS marketplace, working with most of the vendors that are out there, and we've kept a very close eye on the evolution of the technology," Strauss said. "We have an opportunity to really accelerate our development efforts in concert with technology's progress and bring some of the new computing power, new database technologies, and new networking technologies to play to provide a higher level of performance."
Two of those technologies are cascadable architecture and on-demand image distribution. Cascadable architecture is a new type of client-server technology in which the archive's database management software is distributed across a network's hardware components rather than residing on a central server. This eliminates the likelihood of a catastrophic system failure due to a server crash, because the database's hardware resides on multiple computers that employ data mirroring and other redundancy techniques to enable the network to continue operating. The architecture also confers scalability advantages, because the system's capacity can be expanded simply by adding new hardware pieces to the network; with a centralized client-server system, the old server would have to be pulled out and replaced by a larger one, Strauss said.
On-demand image distribution is an alternative to image autorouting, which Fuji believes has flexibility limitations. With autorouting, certain images are always sent to predetermined workstations that are optimized for viewing those types of images. With on-demand image distribution, a radiologist can log on to any workstation in the network and receive images optimized for his or her specialty and viewing preferences.
The first Synapse workstations to be introduced will be for CR applications and will be displayed in Fuji's RSNA booth, with shipments planned for the first quarter of 1998. HI-C/QA is a CR quality-assurance station, while HI-C/NT is a CR viewing workstation available in 1K and 2K configurations. The HI-C/NT workstation will be upgraded to handle multimodality images, and Fuji plans to be selling a full-scale PACS line by the end of 1998, according to Clay Larsen, managing director of marketing.
Fuji's archiving medium of choice at present is digital tape, but the company intends to follow new archiving technologies as they develop. Interfaces to information systems will be handled through industry standards like HL-7.
Fuji's workstations will also support Web-based distribution of radiology images to referring physicians. Because the company began developing its software so recently, it has embedded Web support into Synapse workstations, rather than relying on a separate Web server that is appended to the PACS network, Strauss said.
Although the scope of Fuji's PACS initiative is impressive, the move does not come as a complete surprise. Fuji made a tentative step toward offering PACS products through an alliance created earlier this year with Olicon Imaging Systems of Aliso Viejo, CA (PNN 5/97). That agreement has helped Fuji in situations where its CR customers want to add PACS capabilities but don't want to work through another vendor. Fuji will continue to refer customers to Olicon until Synapse is shipping, according to the company, and after that it will work with Olicon if a customer prefers that company's PACS line.
Fuji's move represents a much-needed diversification from CR, which will experience increased competition from flat-panel digital detector technology being brought to market by a number of different vendors. Fuji believes that CR will continue to be the x-ray digitization method of choice for at least the next five to seven years as flat-panel detectors evolve and are clinically validated, according to Larsen. That said, the Synapse line will give the company a position in a booming market in case flat-panel detectors eat into CR more quickly than expected.
Fuji's business plan calls for the company to install Synapse at an initial beta site, with whom negotiations are in progress. The company also plans to begin hiring additional personnel in preparation for the Synapse launch next year. Fuji is fortunate in that it will be able to leverage its existing sales and service force to some extent, but it will also hire additional field sales personnel, applications engineers, and in-house technical and customer support, Larsen said.