Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Health Care and Imaging

If you've ever had to get an MRI or go for X-rays, you are familiar with imaging. These tests are performed when medical providers are looking for specific situations concerning your health. Laboratory tests can be valuable aids in making a diagnosis, but, as screening tools for detecting hidden disease in asymptomatic individuals, their usefulness is limited, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). The value of a test as a diagnostic aid depends on its sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the measure of the percentage of individuals with the disease who have a positive test result (i.e., people with the disease who are correctly identified by the procedure), and specificity is the measure of the percentage of people without the disease who have a negative test result (i.e., healthy individuals correctly identified as free of the disease).

If a test is 100 percent sensitive and the test result is negative, it can be said with certainty that the person does not have the disease, because there will be no false-negative results. If the test is not specific enough, however, it will yield a large number of false-positive results (positive test results for those who do not have the disease). The ideal test would be 100 percent sensitive and 100 percent specific; an example would be an early pregnancy test that was so accurate that it was positive in every woman who was pregnant and was never positive in a woman who was not pregnant. Unfortunately, no such test exists. The normal value for a test is based on 95 percent of the population tested being free of disease, meaning that 1 out of every 20 test results in healthy individuals will be outside the normal range and therefore positive for the disease, according to EB.

Hippocrates immersed his patients in mud; and where the mud dried first, it was an indicator of disease for him. The ancient Egyptians moved their hands across the surface of the body to scan and monitor changes in temperature distribution, according to Thermology.com. Modern physicians around the world now use infrared thermal imaging cameras with their computers to provide very high technology evaluations of patients. The health applications are numerous and important. With non-invasive infrared thermal imaging, it's very easy to evaluate the physiology of the human body. In a living subject, such as a human being or animal, the changes in blood flow to an area result in a measureable thermal response. These temperature differences appear as color gradations based upon increases or decreases in the thermal activity of the various anatomical areas. This has even applied to environmental studies, crop studies and other biological areas.

The formulation of an accurate diagnosis is often facilitated by the use of lighted optical scopes and diagnostic imaging technologies, according to EB. Procedures such as endoscopy, laparoscopy, and colposcopy make use of generally flexible optical instruments that can be inserted through openings, either natural or surgical in origin, in the body. Many scope instruments are fitted with small video cameras that enable the physician or surgeon to view the tissues being examined on a large monitor. A number of scopes also are designed to enable tissue biopsy, in which a small sample of tissue is collected for histological study, to be performed in conjunction with visual analysis.

One of the most commonly employed diagnostic technologies is x-ray imaging, according to EB. X-rays are highly effective for obtaining images of bone or other specific tissues. However, their inability to distinguish between different tissues of similar densities limits their applications. Several highly specialized imaging techniques, such as computerized axial tomography (CAT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET), have largely supplanted traditional X-ray methods. However, when X-rays are used together with special contrast agents, they are capable of imaging select tissues, such as arteries and veins in angiography and the urinary tract in urography.

Digital Infrared thermal imaging or electronic telethermography, is one of the few available physiological tests for physicians, according to Thermology.com, and is in use throughout the world for the adjunctive or supportive evaluation of the following conditions, non-invasively:
--Breast / thyroid.
--Peripheral vascular.
--Cerebral vascular.
--Musculoskeletal.
--Inflammatory.
--Neoplastic conditions.

According to EB, other diagnostic procedures employ electrodes, transducers, or sound waves to produce graphs or traces that provide information about the function and structure of certain organs. For example, in electrocardiography special electrodes connected to a recording instrument are applied to the body; this enables a graphic tracing of the electric current in the heart. Electrocardiography provides detailed information on the condition and performance of the heart. A procedure known as echocardiography relies on the transduction of sound waves into electrical signals to record information about heart structure and function. This technique makes use of the ability of high-frequency sound waves to penetrate through tissues. The use of these sound waves also forms the basis of the diagnostic procedure of ultrasound, which is most commonly used to examine fetuses in utero in order to ascertain size, position, or abnormalities

There has always been a discussion about thermal imaging systems and the requirements for protocol as recommended by various professional groups in the field. When discussing protocol, it's important to note that this is a user defined safety net that's created to assist the health and scientific field, in this case, to eliminate technician error in the process of capturing a thermal image. It's very much subject to change as technology evolves and processes become redundant. The instrument used for medical applications is going to have very different requirements than that being used in the industrial or military sector. With the explosion of infrared thermal imagers on the market for all types of applications, the medical or health care area remains very specific with its requirements for obtaining high quality and consistent thermograms. Imaging environment controls, patient or subject preparation, capturing capabilities, technician training, and image processing features are all factors to be considered with usage of an infrared thermal imaging system, and vary greatly between medical and industrial infrared imagers. The knowledge level required for operating controls reliably at the time of imaging is also a factor. This is particularly relevant when taking images over time and making comparisons. In the health care field, this is important to make appropriate evaluations that guide the diagnostic process, and not leave much room for error, according to Thermology.com.

According to HealthcareTechGuide.com, the 21st century cardiology department is part clinical wonder, part IT marvel. Clinical leadership aside, at the heart of the business of cardiology today are physicians, administrators and IT professionals who have carefully examined clinical processes, optimized clinical and operational workflow, improved billing, created benchmarks and engineered cost savings. Physicians need anytime-anywhere access to images and reports to make instantaneous, well-informed patient care decisions. Changes in the healthcare provider segment of the healthcare industry are having an impact on storage and IT infrastructure. As providers shift from legacy paper-based processes to automated tasks enabled via healthcare applications, more patient information is born online. Applications including PACS, electronic medical record (EMR), document imaging, integrated patient records, and physician order entry are all causing increased storage demand. As these applications are used by personnel to treat patients, the reliability, recovery, and availability of data they manage become paramount.

When your doctor prescribes an MRI, UltraSound, X-rays, or other imaging procedures, the reason for it is to help you with his search to make you better. Health care is expensive, and much of the costs are driven by new developments in technology. The end result is that those machines continue to improve in quality and the ability to assist the medical community to diagnose and treat various diseases or medical issues. However, wouldn't you rather have the modern wonders of imaging, cost factor aside, to make sure you get the most complete and proper reporting available? Just think, in the early 20th century, a mere 100 years ago, the vast majority of medicine was still guesswork when it came to diagnosing ailments within the body. Short of cutting you open, and that in itself a life threatening situation, there was very little ability for physicians to find out what was going on inside you. Today, with the advent of digital technology and more accurate test results, the mortality rates for many diseases once considered incurable have been vastly reduced. And the accuracy of tests continues to improve with every new generation of equipment approved for the health care market. Although not perfect, medical imaging processes have improved over time to current day abilities that have dramatically transformed health care. Imaging tests can be expensive and intimidating to many individuals; however, the end results are very much worth all efforts to preserve your life and improve your health.

Until next time.

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