GPs enable patients to view X-ray close ups

Consultations may soon be aided by instant close ups of patients’ X-rays, thanks to a new IT system being rolled out across the NHS.

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 new system in hospitals says that it has halved radiology-reporting times from more than six days to less than three.

‘It means you can get expert opinions without ferrying a film all over the place,' said Dr Erika Denton, a consultant radiologist and the programme's medical director. ‘And it means we don't cancel appointments because a film has gone missing.'

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

A CFH spokeswoman said that the team is ‘considering how we can identify and meet the requirements of GPs and PCTs', and will confirm its plans within the next couple of months.

One GP already using the system says it has made it easier to explain problems to patients. Dr George Ewbank, of the Huthwaite practice in Nottinghamshire, says he now uses PACS in every surgery, and that it has allowed him to examine patients' test results even before the consultant reports.

Training took 20 minutes.

‘It means you can demonstrate things to a patient that they can't see otherwise, such as the lump of bone that's squashing their nerves and causing pain,' he said. ‘And you can access a backlog of images going back three years, so you can show a patient how their arthritis has progressed.'

The system runs on Dr Ewbank's original equipment and so there is no cost to him or his practice. However, it is unclear whether there would be costs to other practices if the scheme was rolled out to them.

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

But 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:  ‘You'd want to invest money in any system that gets more timely reports. So 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.

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