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Interfaces are for Rookies

May 29, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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Moving to a second generation PACS or RIS is a great opportunity to achieve true integration.

Randall shortt

Randall Shortt

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will examine the major strategic trends in the imaging/PACS space. This story examines the biggest challenges and opportunities involved in replacing first-generation PACS and RIS systems with second-generation ones. Part II, coming in July, will look at the issues involved in creating real integration between these image management systems and core EMR and CPOE systems. Finally, Part III, slated for August, will uncover the best strategies for working with vendors in the replacement area.

When the folks at Centra Health, a three-facility hospital organization based in Lynchburg, Va., began planning for a replacement of both their radiology information system (RIS) and their picture archiving and communications system (PACS), they knew they would be facing multiple challenges.

Peggy pollard, r.n.

Peggy Pollard, R.N.

On the PACS side, Centra Health's imaging informatics and management leaders were headed towards a straightforward replacement of their PACS system via an upgrade from their PACS vendor (the Atlanta-based McKesson Corporation). On the RIS side, they were looking to replace a first-generation RIS that had been attached to the hospital system's old mainframe clinical information system (an earlier version of the core McKesson electronic medical record, or EMR, product).

Fortunately for them, at the time they were evaluating RIS vendors, their PACS vendor announced a new version of its RIS offering. Though Centra leaders did not decide to go with the same vendor for both system replacements per se, they were delighted to find that a single vendor met their functionality needs with regard to both RIS and PACS.

The key to meeting their needs was some level of functional integration between the RIS and PACS replacement systems in order to optimize clinician workflow, says Randall Shortt, Centra Health's radiology information systems coordinator.

“Prior to the integration, our doctors viewed images in PACS; the department worked their orders in the mainframe; the doctors dictated into a separate dictation system; and it was transcribed into yet another system. So every time we performed a study, we used four un-integrated systems,” Shortt notes. “Now, when the doctor looks at images in the PACS, the program synchs up the dictation module, he or she dictates into it, it launches the transcription, and sends out the report when it's ready.”

In that regard, says, Peggy Pollard, R.N., the health system's director of clinical informatics, “Integration improves quality and efficiency far more than you can even imagine with interfaces. You just can't get there with interfaces to the extent you can with an integrated system.”

And so, not surprisingly, the strategic thinking behind the RIS/PACS replacement at Centra health involved a goal among leaders, including Shortt and Pollard, not simply to upgrade technology, but to leverage that upgrading process to improve patient care and clinician workflow with regard to imaging overall.

Workflow optimization, enterprise-wide strategizing

Such considerations are among the main issues hospital and health system imaging and IT leaders are looking at as they begin to replace first-generation RIS and PACS systems with second-generation ones, say healthcare leaders and industry observers.

Put another way, says Honora Roberts, chief operating officer of The Breakaway Group, a Denver-based consulting firm that specializes in performance improvement work in healthcare, it all comes down to optimizing clinician workflow in order to improve both patient care quality and operational efficiency.

“The biggest pain point as organizations look to upgrade their RIS and PACS systems is in the workflow redesign area,” Roberts says. “I led a project recently involving a pretty significant RIS upgrade, and there was poor workflow built even into the upgrade,” she reports. “Our group was brought in on that project not to redesign workflow, but to support end-user adoption and learning. Unfortunately, what that client organization had already done was to institutionalize workarounds to the system.”

Roberts says this included imaging technologists not following their electronic patient check-in lists, and allowing physicians' staffs to continue to fax referrals, even though an electronic system had been put in place for sending automated referrals directly from physicians to the imaging department.

Tim zoph

Tim Zoph

The challenge of optimizing clinician workflow for improved patient care and enhanced efficiency relates to, and overlaps with, the other big issue that industry experts cite around RIS/PACS replacement: the challenge of enterprise-wide thinking, planning, and strategizing.