Digital X-rays boost for GP consultations

The PACS system could help explain diagnoses to patients, but GPs are concerned the costs are too great.

Consultations may soon be aided by instant close-ups of patients' X-rays, thanks to an IT system being rolled out across the NHS, in England.

The Picture Archiving and Communications System (PACS) replaces film X-rays with digital scans.

These scans can be viewed in several different places at once, and enlarged or reversed, speeding up diagnosis.

The Connecting for Health (CfH) team installing the system in hospitals says it has halved radiology reporting times from six days to fewer than three.

'It means you can get expert opinions without ferrying a film all over the place,' said Dr Erika Denton, a consultant radiologist at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the programme's medical director.

PACS has now been rolled out to every hospital trust in England, however, it is only being used by a few GPs.

A CfH spokeswoman said that the team was 'considering how it can identify and meet the requirements of GPs and PCTs', and would confirm plans in the next couple of months.

One GP already using the PACS system said that it made it easier to explain problems to a patient.

Dr George Ewbank, from the Huthwaite practice in Nottinghamshire, said that PACS has allowed him to examine patients' test results even before the consultant reports.

'It means you can demonstrate things that a patient can't otherwise see, like a lump of bone that's squashing their nerves and causing pain,' he said.

'You can access a backlog of images going back three years, so you can show a patient how their arthritis has progressed.'

Training took 20 minutes and the system runs on Dr Ewbank's original equipment, so there is no cost to him or his practice.

Dr Ewbank added that the system was easy to set up, and would soon use the chip and PIN-style NHS Smartcard system to ensure security.

However, it is unclear whether there will be costs to other practices if the scheme was rolled out to them.

Some GPs have questioned whether the benefits of PACS will outweigh the costs.

Dr James Kingsland, chairman of the National Association of Primary Care, and a GP on the Wirral, said: 'If it takes a marginal investment, that's great.

'But if it costs £100,000 to deliver reports a day earlier, then that doesn't attract me.'

CfH was unable to comment on the cost of rolling out the new system to GPs.

At present, only radiology images are available on the new system, but CfH plans to extend it to other disciplines such as radiotherapy, cardiology and breast screening over the next two years.

jonn.elledge@haymarket.com

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