DR Systems Spins Off eMix to Provide Online Exchange for Medical Images

Bill O’Leary, an IT specialist at a hospital in Montana, got a typical request one evening in January. A physician at another hospital, in this case a pediatric neurologist in Seattle, needed O’Leary to send the doctor a patient’s medical imaging exam. To transfer the digital image a year ago, O’Leary would have spent hours setting up a private Internet connection between his hospital and the physician’s hospital. Or, he could have copied the image onto a CD and mailed it to Seattle within two days.

With the neurologist’s request, however, O’Leary used a third-party service called eMix that allowed him to send the imaging exam over the Web almost as easily as e-mailing the record to the hospital in Seattle. “It’s a lot faster than over-nighting a CD,” says O’Leary, of Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Online services like eMix are beginning to catch on because of their ability to bridge gaps in hospitals’ ability to share medical images. The company is wholly owned by San Diego-based DR Systems, a provider of radiology software that developed the eMix technology over the past couple of years.

The eMix service addresses one part of a huge problem in healthcare: hospitals have invested big bucks in IT systems that are often unable to easily “talk” to each other or exchange data like electronic health records and digital medical images. A typical solution has been to load medical images onto CDs, which patients can carry to appointments with doctors at separate facilities. But that practice has proven to be ineffective, for example, because the images on CDs are often damaged or unable to be read on other hospital’s computers. When the records aren’t readily available, the imaging exams often need to be redone, which contributes to the estimated $3 billion to $10 billion per year the U.S. healthcare system spends on unnecessary medical imaging, according to Imaging e-Ordering Coalition, a advocacy group formed last year.

There’s been a gold rush of sorts in recent years among healthcare software outfits develop technology that fixes this problem in sharing medical images. Hopkinton, MA-based data storage giant EMC, a major provider of data management hardware and software for hospitals and customers in other industries, is backing a Boston-area startup called LifeImage to develop a service to securely exchange medical images over the Internet. (EMC’s (NYSE:EMC) data-management technology is also used in the data center that supports the eMix service, according to Florent Saint-Clair, a program director for eMix). Seemyradiology.com, a medical image-sharing Web service from the Atlanta-based radiology software firm Accelarad, is another emerging player. Executives at both eMix and LifeImage tell me they expect to have a dozen or more competitors within the next year.

A major goal for eMix is for customers to be able to use it without requiring them to load any software onto their own computers. So eMix designed the system to be Web-based, other than client software that eMix gives users to move downloaded images to their local systems. The digital medical images are uploaded to and downloaded from eMix’s secure cloud. For now, the eMix system is designed solely for transferring medical images like CT scans or radiology exams, and each record is wiped clean from the system after 30 days. Yet Saint-Clair says that use of the firm’s cloud could be expanded to include long-term storage services for healthcare customers.

The strategy to make eMix an online service is appealing to customers because there’s very little they need to do to adopt the service and manage it, according to Saint-Clair. Since the service was introduced late last year, he says, the number of medical centers that have signed on to at least try out the service has grown to more than 20 hospitals. A few notable initial users of the system include Seattle Children’s Hospital, Imaging Healthcare Specialists, of San Diego, and St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences, in Missoula, MT. Meantime, eMix is in the process of expanding use of its technology in Asia, Europe, and other international markets.

Still, eMix’s competitors are making a dent in this market as well. LifeImage, for example, has developed software to enable hospitals to easily transfer medical images from patient’s CDs onto their own systems, and the firm has recently launched a service to allow trauma units and other clinics to exchange medical images over the Internet. The company built the service onto EMC’s “Atmos” cloud storage and computing platform. And Seemyradiology.com revealed last month that its service enables physicians to access medical images from the service’s cloud with their mobile devices.

A theme among these firms is to maintain neutrality among vendors of picture archiving and communication systems, more commonly known by the acronym “PACS,” which are used to store and manage medical images. DR Systems, an 18-year-old PACS provider, designed the eMix system to easily transfer images from PACS systems from a variety of vendors, using a digital imaging standard called DICOM.

While eMix is a separate corporate entity from DR Systems on paper, the new business operates in DR Systems’s office in San Diego, primarily under the management of employees of the sole owner, according to Saint-Clair. Saint-Clair, who spends most of his time on the eMix venture, has been an employee of DR Systems since he joined the company early last year to work on its business dealings with the U.S. Department of Defense, he says. Early in the last decade, he was a president at RadVault, a developer of PACS technology that eventually flamed out.

A big test for eMix and its competitors is whether they will survive these heady days of their industry to become established players—like DR Systems was able, and RadVault was unable, to do in the PACS game.

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