Technology holds key to delivering quality healthcare to people in a country like India. As the diagnostics industry is looking to grow exponentially on the back of technological advancements, the highest amounts of research and development investment ever is leading to the development of faster, cheaper and more accurate tests, says Dr Harsh Mahajan, an eminent radiologist and a pioneer in the field of Magnetic Resonance Imaging in India.
Radiology – paving the way
It is impossible to ignore the role that diagnostic medical technology plays in our life today – whether it is a simple Fitbit constantly monitoring our vital signs, or a complicated MRI scan “reading” the human body like an open book. In fact, right utilisation of diagnostic tools is an important part of the solution for the health quagmire we are facing today – not only do such tools shed light on the disease at hand, but they also help prevent future complications, diagnose diseases early and hence reduce cost.
Early diagnosis is one of the most promising approaches to reducing growing disease burden in India today. For any healthcare system to battle the access-affordability-quality conundrum, it is vital that the role of new and advanced diagnostic and imaging tools is understood by relevant stakeholders so they may be leveraged appropriately.
Radiology and imaging (and other diagnostic tools) help save cost and improve clinical outcomes by detecting diseases at a pre-symptomatic stage and by detecting disease-complications before they manifest and/or become untreatable. Also, advanced radiology applications enable more specific diagnosis, enabling physicians and surgeons to give targeted therapies. All this leads to better quality of life for patients at a much lower cost. That said, it is important to avoid over-usage of imaging techniques by adhering to guidelines for use of these technologies.
Radiology in particular, has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. A variety of imaging techniques are now used commonly to diagnose and treat diseases in ways not imaginable earlier.
Golden age of diagnostic innovations
Modern day diagnostics came into being and began spreading rapidly in the 70s. Since then the industry has grown exponentially with the introduction of new technologies, which have become routine today, like digital X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI and PET, amongst others. That said, while imaging has seen tremendous advancement, the field of lab medicine and in-vitro diagnostics has added genomics to its armory, revolutionizing both prevention and therapy of disease in its own right. In fact, the diagnostics industry is seeing one of the highest amounts of research and development investment ever leading to the development of faster, cheaper and more accurate tests.
Radiology in particular, has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. A variety of imaging techniques are now used commonly to diagnose and treat diseases in ways not imaginable earlier. A clear example is MRI which, using water molecules in the human body to create images, has become relatively common with more than 300 new MRI machines installed in India every year. Not only are MRI images used for detecting structural abnormalities but today, MRI is being used to study function of the body as well.
One such example is functional MRI, which was introduced in India by us nearly 20 years ago, which is enabling scientists and neurologists to unlock the secrets of the human brain by enabling visualization of brain activity in real-time.
Digitisation of radiology, combined with high internet penetration, has enabled access to high-quality radiology services in remote locations of India as well. There are several indigenous Picture Archival & Communication software (PACS) and teleradiology companies that are helping link patients in rural and semi-rural India with doctors at top institutes.
One specific field where radiology has played a transformational role is that of oncology, or cancer medicine. Let’s take the example of breast cancer, the most common cancer in women in urban India. Breast cancer is one of the few cancers which has a very well established screening tool – the X-Ray mammography, which when used properly, enables early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, saving lives in the process. Other techniques, such as sonomammography (ultrasound of the breast) and MR mammography (breast imaging using MRI) help shed more light on the extent/nature of disease, in case the X-Ray mammogram comes to be positive or ambiguous. Interestingly, X-Ray mammography has also evolved into Full-Field Digital Mammography and Digital Tomosynthesis.
Additionally, advancements in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping improve both accuracy and speed of diagnostics. For example, there are several organisations working on automatically diagnosing tuberculosis from chest x-rays that can potentially help address the lack of radiologists in India today. Big data analytics on radiology reports and images is helping identify new disease patterns and formulate more specific health policies across the country. Additionally, technologies such as 3-D printing, which were conventionally not developed with radiology in mind, are playing a vital role in helping surgeons figure out the best route for a complicated surgery or teaching students about human anatomy and its anomalies.
It would be an understatement that the upcoming decade is going to see the development and introduction of many revolutionary technologies in radiology. It will be the intersection of medical technology with mainstream technologies that will play a vital role in this radiological revolution and we need to ensure that both investment and interest are targeted in the correct direction!
Dr Harsh Mahajan is an eminent radiologist and a pioneer in the field of Magnetic Resonance Imaging of India. The national honour of Padma Shri was conferred on him by the government of India in the year 2002 for his contribution to the field of radiology in India. As a result of his technical expertise in radiology, Dr Mahajan was appointed as Honorary Radiologist to the President of India in 1998, becoming the first ever radiologist to be so honoured with this title.