It is crucial that archiving systems be upgraded in order to accommodate the increasing volume of medical images.
Medical imaging is one of the most important diagnostic tools healthcare providers have at their disposal. Images are useful not just in the short term, but can have long-term benefit, whether that includes side-by-side comparison with new images to gauge a patient's progress, or as a tool in research efforts.
In order to retain this valuable information, medical images are required to be archived and saved by law for a certain amount of time--a minimum of 7 years in U.S. hospitals. Some images are kept much longer, depending on the type of image and the age of the patient. Pediatric scans, for example, must be kept until the patient is 21. All of these images take up an immense amount of digital storage space. It is estimated that about 33% of the world's storage demands is related to medical imaging storage. Because of this, upgrading archiving systems will be an essential step in keeping up with the ever-growing volume of medical images.
Medical Imaging Storage Demands
It is easy to see how we can quickly run out of physical storage space for archives of medical records and images--physical images take up a great deal of space, as well as being costly and resource-heavy to produce. But the digital demands of image storage are also growing every year, and there is only so much space that can be used with current digital storage systems. To detail just how fast our storage needs are growing, HGST wrote, "Research from IDC anticipates overall healthcare data to grow at 48% per year, reaching 2.3 zettabytes by 2020."
Medical images are also becoming more complex and continue to consume more storage space over time, due to advancements such as 3-D images and continually updated ultrasound frames from a live session.
Digital files must still be stored somewhere, whether that is a hard drive, CD, or "cloud." Even remote storage solutions have space limitations, and it is important for the industry to anticipate the huge need for improved archiving solutions in the next few years.
How Are Medical Images Stored Today?
The majority of healthcare facilities still use CDs to store their medical images in archives. CDs are expensive, costing large providers up to $1.5 million dollars per year, with many hospitals producing 100,000 CDs annually. Finding those archived disks slows physicians down, as it can take hours to locate the disks they need. CDs take up an immense amount of physical space as well, and hospitals can only store so much data in-house in this way. Because of this, some healthcare facilities are already changing the way they store digital images.
The Immediate Future of Imaging Storage
Cloud-based systems are becoming the new normal for digital storage needs, whether professional or personal. Apple uses a cloud system for user data backup, and many hospitals are also looking at this option for solving their digital storage problems. Data is stored on servers in remote locations, and hospitals can access their data on various devices by paying a monthly fee. In the past, upgrades to hardware and software for imaging data would cost facilities hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and maintain. According to the Wall Street Journal, about 15% of medical storage systems were cloud-based, as of 2013. Physicians using these systems no longer need to look for a physical disk, but can access the records immediately, using a username and password. The benefits of a cloud system are obvious. So why is the adoption rate of such systems so slow?
Accessibility and Security
While cloud-based systems provide easy access to important data and remove the need for extensive in-house archiving, there are also some disadvantages. Because many cloud companies have multiple storage server locations, medical providers may not know where their data is being stored, or how it is being protected. Cyber security is an ongoing struggle, and many medical facilities are understandably concerned about the safety of their data on the cloud.
Cloud storage vendors are acknowledging these drawbacks and must comply with certain security requirements and privacy laws. Many healthcare providers do not trust all of their images to the cloud; some keep recent images in-house and only send older data to offsite servers. Hybrid solutions like this and integrating state systems into one archive can help hospitals achieve lower costs, secure systems, and easy access to medical records.
What Will It Cost?
Cloud-based systems are generally much cheaper than in-house storage systems. A recent study shows that hardware costs are 50% less using cloud-based systems over traditional archives. Facilities only need to pay for what they use, and the system is easily scaled. CD costs are greatly reduced or eliminated entirely, allowing facilities to save millions over time. Maintenance costs are also reduced, as most equipment is owned by vendors, not the facilities themselves.
Amazing Innovations in Medical Imaging Archives
Cloud systems may be the immediate future of digital image storage, but there are more exciting and innovative solutions in the works for long term solutions to the problem. The University of Washington estimates that world data storage needs will reach 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, a staggering number that will make even remote data storage a less viable long term option. To help solve this ongoing problem, Microsoft and the University of Washington joined forces to store digital images in the smallest space possible: a DNA molecule.
Vice reported, "In the experiment, they encoded digital data from four image files into the nucleotide sequences of synthetic DNA snippets, which can be dehydrated for long-term storage."
Incredibly, the scientists were then able to retrieve the images successfully, with no data loss. If this experiment could be implemented in the future, storage space needs would be minimal. Luis Ceze, an associate professor who worked on the project, stated that the same amount of digital data that is stored in a large warehouse today could fit within "a few sugar cubes" using the DNA method.
For now, cloud-based or hybrid systems are the most viable option for healthcare systems that are struggling with the size of their imaging data archive. However, in the long term, radical changes could be necessary to keep up with the increasing worldwide archive.
Sarah Daren is a consultant to startups in the wellness, wearable technology, and health education industries.
[Image courtesy of STOCKDEVIL/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS]