New technologies in imaging are making diagnoses more efficient for both the patient and the doctor.
Just 30 years ago, patients who were experiencing abdominal pains might have had to undergo surgery to determine a diagnosis.
They would have been examined, cut open, poked and prodded, all to verify if appendicitis was causing their discomfort or something far worse.
But today, thanks to advancements with diagnostic imaging, exploratory surgery is no longer the norm to diagnose medical conditions.
“With diagnostic imaging, you can be much more accurate, and it can potentially save someone’s life,” says Dr. David Levy, medical director with Atlantic Medical Imaging, which has locations across South Jersey. “In the past, they would do the surgery, and sometimes you may be right and sometimes you might be wrong. And now you’ve operated on [a patient]. That doesn’t happen now.”
Diagnostic imaging essentially allows radiologists to “see inside of patients without having to cut them open,” explains Dr. G. Tom Morea, of Upright MRI’s outpatient office in Cherry Hill. The most common types of diagnostic imaging include X-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds and CAT scans, which all allow doctors to gather more information about patients, their bodies and their ailments.
Technology is largely spurring the growth of diagnostic imaging, according to the radiologists, who say imaging machines are continually improving and the detailed, computer-generated pictures they create allow doctors to more effectively diagnose and treat diseases.
“Machines were essentially invented that didn’t exist 30 to 40 years ago, namely MRIs and CAT scans,” Levy says. “They have allowed us to look inside the body in ways we never could before. And it just keeps getting better and better.”
Morea says the tremendous growth in diagnostic imaging during the past two decades makes it an exciting time to work in the industry.
“Diagnostic imaging has revolutionized the [medical] industry,” he says. “In the old days, they used to do exploratory surgery because they had no tests to see inside of you. Nowadays, we have MRIs, CAT scans and ultrasounds. Years ago, a CAT scan of the brain took over an hour and was of poor quality. Now it takes five minutes and it is a hundred times better. It’s clearer and sharper and safer.”
How it works
Most diagnostic imaging procedures are non-invasive, painless and easy. Some are minimally invasive and will require the patient to hold still for a certain amount of time, which can be slightly uncomfortable but not painful. There also are several diagnostic imaging procedures in which an IV might be inserted or patients might be asked to swallow substances that will help identify internal problem areas. Certain tests involve exposure to a small amount of radiation.
“Every test is different,” Levy says. “A test may take 30 seconds or 45 minutes. Then we send the information to the doctors, and we can meet with patients afterward if they want to and give them the results.”
Levy says seeing the impact of diagnostic imaging first hand is tremendous. For example, if patients are experiencing chest pains or have a family history of heart conditions, he can administer a CAT scan of their chests to determine if there is blockage in the coronary arteries. Such blockage is a medical issue that could cause death, he says.
“In 10 minutes, you can have a patient sit in a comfortable outpatient environment and determine if there is a blockage, and find something that possibly could have killed them,” he says.
Another example is orthopedic imaging—one of Levy’s specialties—which largely includes imaging of the knees, shoulders and back.
“For example, say a patient might have fallen and has shoulder pain but the doctor can’t see a fracture. With orthopedic imaging, we’ll be able to find out what’s going on inside of that patient’s body, “ Levy says. “In a world where you don’t always get a lot of answers, most of the time, we are able to provide an answer for patients.”
However, he adds, diagnostic imaging does not replace routine checkups, temperature checks, blood work or physicals, which are all common techniques used by doctors to spot potential medical issues, determine diagnoses or treat conditions. Rather, diagnostic imaging—such as X-ray images taken in a hospital emergency room—supplements those methods, he says.
The perceived danger of diagnostic imaging, Levy says, is often overblown and misunderstood. While it is recommended that radiologists minimize radiation from some procedures, such as X-rays or CAT scans, diagnostic imaging is safe, he says. “Oftentimes the risk of not having the procedure is much greater than the perceived risks of radiation,” he says.
Unlike conventional X-ray imaging, MRI uses strong magnetic fields to produce images, while diagnostic ultrasound systems use high-frequency sound waves to produce images of soft tissue and internal body organs. Both operate without ionizing radiation.
At Atlantic Medical Imaging, staff is consistently trained about radiation, the risks and how much is allowable. The practice also uses the minimum radiation dose possible and has radiation safety programs installed on all of its diagnostic imaging machines, Levy says.
Advancements in the field
Breast MRIs, which are a step beyond mammography, is one imaging advancement that’s gaining a lot of buzz in the medical industry, Morea says.
“Breast MRIs are now more widely available and used. Sometimes, the imaging will let you know if it’s cancer or not without having to undergo the biopsy. Back in the old days, if you had breast cancer, they would take out all of your lymph nodes and wrap your arm in ace bandages to hold fluids down for the rest of your life. Now they can take out those lymph nodes specifically affected by cancer.”
Additional advancements include special MRI machines that allow patients to sit in a comfortable position during the imaging test, rather than standing or laying down, Morea says.
“It makes it more definitive, and you can see things that might be hidden,” he says. “It increases the odds of finding something.”
In addition, three-dimensional and computerized images have revolutionzed the industry in the past few years. Previously, images were only 2D and static and often produced on film.
“Every medical specialty uses diagnostic imaging, so there are constant advancements,” Morea says. “It’s really exciting to watch the advancements because they help the patients and the doctors. You can diagnose someone without having to cut them open or perform surgery. That’s a good thing.”
Atlantic Medical Imaging
Serving South Jersey
701 Route 38 E.
Published (and copyrighted) in the Art of Living Well pull-out section of Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4 (June, 2014).
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