Radiology services are becoming increasingly decentralised and personalised, offering a far more convenient pathway for diagnosis and treatment. A major enabling factor for this shift is sector-wide digital transformation, providing new technology and information systems that allow data consolidation and sharing between clinicians. These tools will make it easier for healthcare professionals to access the necessary information from any location and at any time, helping them to diagnose and treat their patients better and sooner.
However, the transition to digitisation within radiology brings with it many challenges, as picture archive and communication systems of each hospital and department may differ greatly between institutions. Therefore, compiling the data silos from different sites into one central location inevitably creates vastly disparate data sets that need to be standardised and integrated to form the overall picture of a patient’s health, and to guide their personalised care pathway. This slows down and frustrates the diagnostic process, and causes delays in the onset of treatment, as well as stress to both staff and patients.
Until recently, IT systems in radiology lagged behind other industries, and even other areas of healthcare. With hospitals under increasing pressure to care for more patients with a smaller budget, the burden of data handling is only set to continue, highlighting the need for a novel knowledge-sharing platform to enable the rapid digital transformation of radiology services at scale.
Embracing technology to enhance patient care
An example of this type of digital radiology platform can be seen at the East Midlands Imaging Network (EMRAD), where the deployment of new digital solutions and a dedicated image insourcing model has significantly decreased turnaround times, alleviating staff workload and improving patient experience. EMRAD is a network of hospital radiology departments spanning 14 hospitals within eight NHS trusts, and serves a population of over five million people across the East Midlands. The collaboration was launched in 2013 to create a cloud-based digital radiology system to enable the sharing of radiology images and data between connected hospitals, making them available to relevant clinicians from any site, at any time.
Through a competitive dialogue procurement process, EMRAD chose GE Healthcare as its prime contractor for implementing a range of picture archiving and communications software platforms for radiology. As part of this new working relationship, GE brought EMRAD a set of digital solutions to cover its storage and sharing needs across the different hospitals and trusts within the imaging network.
Adopting this image-sharing system has set the national benchmark for a new model of clinical collaboration within the field of radiology in the NHS. The open-access approach to image sharing furthers EMRAD’s goals of consistently achieving the highest standards of clinical care for patients, delivering short reporting times on images, alleviating staff workload, and making the best use of increasingly strained NHS funding and resources.
Recognising success with insourcing
The EMRAD insourcing program has provided additional financial support to radiologists and radiographers reporting images outside of their core hours, which proved crucial in successfully shifting the backlog accumulated during the long-term restrictions caused by COVID-19. Image insourcing began in August 2016, with six insourcing reporters sharing images in real time across the EMRAD network. This number has since grown dramatically, and the network now has 131 reporters, including 100 radiologists and 31 reporting radiographers across seven NHS trusts. Through this large and dedicated team, EMRAD has insourced over 440,000 studies to date, spanning plain film, MRI and CT scans, with an average of 9,400 studies being insourced every month throughout 2022. This internal program has so far saved the NHS over £3.3M by reducing its dependence on external third-party service providers*.
Accelerating change in community healthcare
The GE Edison™ Accelerator programme is an initiative launched in 2021 that brings together start-ups, healthcare providers, leading technology suppliers, developers and academic institutions under a single connected ecosystem, with the ultimate goal of providing validated solutions that enable better patient outcomes and greater staff satisfaction. The programme acts as EMRAD’s validation partner and enables it to develop valuable plug-and-play AI tools that will form part of an anticipated full-blown machine learning system at some point in the not-too-distant future.
The network is also investigating new ways to solve staffing and recruitment issues in radiology, how to procure services in more cost-effective ways for the NHS, and possibilities for harnessing the power of AI in diagnostics. These advances aim to improve the quality and safety of patient services, and help ensure long-term sustainability and staff retention in radiology.
Reflections on the journey to digitisation
A cornerstone of EMRAD’s success over the past decade has been its high level of transparency, both within and between its hospitals and NHS trusts. This drive for openness and clarity in every aspect of the network has helped the participants build mutual trust and strong working relationships, forming the backbone of the system’s longevity and functionality. Since its inception almost 10 years ago, this has resulted in an altruistic and cooperative approach across the entire collaborative, with knowledge and resources being shared equitably to improve care for patients.
The 14 hospitals and eight trusts now have one common purpose and work together with a strategic focus to explore new technologies and workflows for standardising radiology protocols, better supporting the burnt-out NHS workforce and enhancing patient experience and outcomes. EMRAD is committed to continuous improvement and learning, and supports ongoing professional development in the imaging field, maintaining the network’s forward-thinking focus and future-proofing radiology services across the East Midlands.
*The numbers provided in this study are generated and maintained by EMRAD as part of an ongoing economic analysis on the insourcing program, and are specific to the 8 NHS trusts and 14 hospitals that form the EMRAD network.