As medical imaging technology improves and more clinicians demand access to patients' diagnostic-quality images, healthcare providers are finding that storage requirements are soaring.
In the past, radiology and cardiology departments were the primary users of medical imaging systems and picture archiving and communication systems (PACs), including CT scans, MRI, cardiac catheterizations and echocardiograms. But recently medical digital imaging has exploded into many more specialties.
Pathologists and dermatologists are among the new users. Images of tissue samples and skin lesions improve diagnosis and track the progress of patients' treatments. Also, new cancer diagnostic exams involving the latest medical imaging equipment, such as digital mammography, produce thousands of images per study.
About five to seven years ago, the average 300- to 500-bed hospital needed about 1 to 2 TB of storage for its medical imaging, says Matt Long, North American VP of enterprise imaging at Philips Healthcare, a provider of PACS products and services. Today, it needs 50 to 100 TB for the average 150,000 to 200,000 imaging-related procedures done annually in those sized facilities, says Long.
Annual storage requirements for many providers are increasing at a rate of 20% to 100%, says Gary Sevounts, senior director of product marketing for Symantec's electronic health group. A CT scan that in the past had 8 slices, or images, can now have 256 or more slices. "That's many times more than the older images," he says.
Ballooning storage requirements has resulted in a number of challenges, from cost to disaster recovery to security and access issues, Sevounts says.
Digital image storage space isn't easily reused. Retention rules for medical images vary from state to state, but generally, providers are required to keep images for at least seven years. When it comes to oncology centers, many hold on to these images for the life of the patient and beyond, Long says. That's because cancer doctors as well as researchers are using the images to track how patients' tumors respond to various treatments.
Also, while the cost of raw storage is decreasing, the associated costs for staff to track and manage images, management software, disaster recovery and backup systems, and the energy to power these systems are soaring, Sevounts says.