New technology quickens tedious medical procedures

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Crystal Macugen, radiation therapist, got James Beaird ready for treatment using the Novalis equipment at Southeast Missouri Hospital's Cancer Center in Cape Girardeau. (Diane L. Wilson)

Devices let hospital staff members take scans 16 times faster than before.

In an industry where lives hang in the balance, seconds count.

To help improve efficiency, both Cape Girardeau hospitals have invested in new technology to locate problems in a patient's body quicker.

Saint Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital have upgraded their computerized tomography scanners, which are essentially X-ray devices that can show organs and blood vessels.

Since late 2005, the hospitals have been using 64-slice CT scanners, allowing the hospitals' staff to take scans 16 times faster than ever before.

For the scan, the patient is placed on a table that passes through a doughnut-shaped scanner. X-rays then pass through the body in cross-sections and recorded by a computer, which combines the slices of the scan to create an image.

The more slices the scanner can make, the more detailed an image.

Older versions of the scanner, such as a 4-slice, could take up to a minute to scan some organs and even longer for the computer to translate that scan into a visible picture.

Although the older scanners could perform many similar features as the new ones can, the 64-slice can do a more detailed job and complete the tasks in substantially less time.

In fact, it takes more time to prep the patient for the scan than it does for the actual scan to take place and be loaded on the computer.

Dr. C.C. Strange, a doctor in the Cape Radiology Group at Saint Francis, compares the new scanner to a camera with a fast shutter speed.

No more blurring

An older scanner would take a picture of the heart and it would blur from the motion of the beating organ. The new 64-slice scan takes the picture so quickly there is no blurring.

With the heart, the machine can capture 192 images in one second and any maladies can be detected within 10 minutes.

Other scans required the patient to lie perfectly still, without breathing, for a period of up to a minute. Now, the 64-slice can do the same scan in just 10 seconds.

This can be helpful when dealing with jittery children or seniors who may not be able to lie down comfortably at extended lengths.

"It can get a lot of information in a short period of time," said Dr. Andrew West, a neuroradiologist for Southeast Missouri Hospital.

And while a few seconds may not mean a whole lot to some people, it can mean everything in the medical field, especially with a trauma patient.

"Seconds make a difference. Minutes make a difference in what they're going to treat," Strange said.

In addition to the showing images of organs, the 64-slice CT scanner can also view the vessels outside of the organ, something West calls the main advantage of the technology.

The scanner is also able to view the blood flow to the brain, a feature West hopes could be applied elsewhere, including to other organs.

"We'll continue to look at new ways on how to utilize this," he said.

Another benefit of the new technology is patients can be shown a picture and understand it at a basic level.

With the old scanners, a layman looking at the black and white pictures may not understand certain anomalies. But with the ability to show full color, 3-D pictures, patients are more likely to be able to see and understand the problems doctors spot.

"If they do want to see, we can make it more recognizable," Strange said.

And it does more than just take pretty pictures.

After the computer creates a 3-D model of an organ or artery system, doctors can twist and rotate the selection to show any angle they choose, exposing every corner.

Inside view

The new scanners can also take viewers on a virtual roller-coaster ride through a patient's arteries and veins.

Gliding up and down on the computer screen, doctors can start from the heart and move through the ventricle system and see exactly where any abnormalities lie.

The 64-slice scanner is especially helpful when it comes to imaging coronary arteries.

Before the CT scanners, an angiogram would have to be performed, inserting a catheter through either the groin or arm and moving it into position at the opening of a coronary artery. A solution containing iodine, which is detectable by an X-ray, is then injected into each artery.

Patients undergoing this time of procedure were also at risk for a stroke, West said.

While less than 1 percent of people who undergo that procedure have a stroke, with the new technology, there's no risk at all, West said.

Altogether, the process can take between 20 and 30 minutes, something the CT scanner can bypass.

"All they need is a few seconds," Strange said.

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