What is Teleradiology?
Teleradiology is the practice of having medical images interpreted (read) by a radiologist who is not present at the site the images were generated. Teleradiology is utilized by hospitals, urgent cares, mobile imaging companies, and even private practices. The general idea behind teleradiology is that having an on-site radiologist is expensive, starting at around $1,500 a day. While utilizing a teleradiology service allows you to pay per exam, in some cases as little as $8 per. This can mean huge savings for facilities with a small volume or requiring 24/7 services.
Teleradiology improves patient care by allowing radiologists to provide services without actually having to be at the location of the patient. This is particularly important when a sub-specialist such as a MRI radiologist, neuroradiologist, pediatric radiologist, or musculoskeletal radiologist is needed, since these professionals are generally only located in large metropolitan areas working during day time hours. Teleradiology allows for trained specialists to be available 24/7.
To define what teleradiology is, it might be a good idea to start out with the definition of the word “radiology” itself. Radiology is an imaging technique used by physicians to take images of the internal body, usually for diagnosis or treatment. Some examples of this are x-rays, MRIs and ultrasounds.
Now let’s add the prefix “tele” to the word. Think of the word “telephone”, a device that lets you call someone who is elsewhere. In teleradiology, this means that the images are sent elsewhere. The images and studies done using the images are shared with doctors or practitioners somewhere other than where the images were taken.
Until recently, teleradiology was used in emergencies only. Of course, with the advent of the internet, the practice spread rather quickly. Sending images is as easy as sending an email with some attachments. Now there are computer programs that are specifically dedicated to sending radiological images. This resulted in teleradiology becoming a huge practice in medicine, and it still is today.
The reason a doctor might use teleradiology is to collaborate with other doctors who he might not be able to collaborate with otherwise (ie. they are in remote locations). It aids in diagnosis, as it will often help with getting second opinions, and in this same way it may help with symptom control. In many cases, it may be the first opinion as a radiologist may not be available at the hospital.
A common scenario is when a patient comes into the emergency room, but the hospital is small with maybe only one radiologist employed. Teleradiology allows the images taken by the ER team to be examined by a radiologist elsewhere. This is especially common in rural areas. Radiological specialists are usually located in metropolitan areas, and are often not employed in small rural areas.
The great thing about teleradiology is that certain images can be read by a trained radiologist and a life saving discovery can be made. This is not always so if an untrained eye is looking at the images. To the untrained eye, an ultrasound showing a malignant growth may mean nothing, but to a trained radiologist, it may mean cancer. This is the difference between the patient getting the treatment he or she needs, or walking out of the hospital with no treatment plan.
Of course this all sounds perfectly fine, and life saving in some cases. But as with everything, there are some down sides to the practice. A radiologist can only do so much with images. The doctor may normally follow up with other hands on procedures. However, with teleradiology, the radiologist is receiving only images and no patient to perform more tests on. This means that the doctor must relay the information to the on-site doctors. This can lead to confusion and miscommunications.
Another obvious con of teleradiology is the dependence on technology. Without technology, teleradiology is impossible. If, for example, the hospital’s internet is down for service etc., teleradiology is not going to be an option. This would mean that an emergency room visit requiring teleradiology would end with an undiagnosed or even untreated patient.
Overall, teleradiology is a great practice. It is no surprise that it has become so widespread with the use of the internet. Teleradiology, while it does rely on technology, can be life saving and can be used to aid in diagnosis and recovery.
Further reading in the Teleradiology series
Chapter 1: What is Teleradiology?
Chapter 2: A History of Teleradiology
Chapter 3: How can you use Teleradiology?
Chapter 4: What does Teleradiology cost?
Chapter 5: What to look for in a Teleradiology provider?
Chapter 6: Teleradiology Jobs and Salaries
Chapter 7: Teleradiology News
Chapter 8: How to become a teleradiologist