In a medical emergency such as a stroke, the difference between waiting one or two hours to receive your scan results can mean the difference between life and death. So, what happens if your medical emergency happens out of hours, or in a place where the specialist help you need is just not available?

Thanks to teleradiology, the process in which radiological patient images, such as x-rays, CTs, and MRIs are shared virtually using technology, avoidable delays in producing vital medical information are increasingly a thing of the past. Better still, smaller hospitals are now able to access specialist expertise – for example, in brain or muscular injuries, or in children – that might otherwise be unavailable. Dr David Wilson, past president of the British Institute of Radiology, and auditor of teleradiology services used by the NHS, says: “Teleradiology is a way to get the doctor you want, rather than the doctor you have to have.”

 

A growing industry

 

Teleradiology connecting the NHS with commercial radiology suppliers has been part of NHS care for around 20 years, and it’s a growth industry: each year there are around 15 per cent more scans but only around 2 per cent more new radiologists – and that’s before the NHS achieves its ambitions of 24/7 care. Using standard network technologies such as the internet, telephone lines, local area networks (LAN) and computer clouds, combined with specialised, encrypted software radiologists can now easily and securely transmit what can be up to thousands of images for a given patient.

Due to the specialist equipment and processes required, there are four main UK companies active in this sector, and it is Dr Wilson’s view that the industry may consolidate further, using technology to communicate between ‘super’ specialists who work remotely, as well as with radiologists on staff.

He also expects virtual multidisciplinary meetings between hospital and commercial staff to become more common, giving non-hospital staff the clinical ‘big picture’ that can inform improved care.

As an auditor of the standards of care offered by commercial teleradiology companies, Dr Wilson is responsible for protecting patient safety from challenges such as under-performing staff or faulty systems. He says a fixed proportion of reports are always second-checked for discrepancies. He says: “Audit is far from a token gesture. Days of work go into this process and the independent sector is really setting the standard for patient safety.”