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Inside look: New RF Hospital technology improves patient care

Looking at "innards" just got faster, easier and more detailed than it's ever been at River Falls Area Hospital.

The hospital bought a new machine this summer that brings higher technology and more accuracy than before.

The new computerized tomography (CT) scanner looks like a giant, white donut. Patients lie down and slide through the middle of the donut, and the machine takes detailed pictures of whatever parts or organs need to be examined.

Webster defines tomography as: "A method of producing a three-dimensional image of the internal structures of a solid object (as the human body or the Earth)..."

CT scanners take pictures in slices. Radiology Department Manager Judy Zaruba explains with an analogy: "It's like slicing a loaf of bread. You can look at each slice one by one."

For example, the machine might look at a person's kidney. It will take six pictures or "slices" that show the kidney millimeter by millimeter, enabling a radiologist to examine fine details of each slice.

RFAH's old CT scanner took one slice at a time. The new one does six slices at once.

Zaruba said the machine can detect very small lesions or nodules that might not have been visible in a scan done by the old scanner. Looking at one millimeter at a time reveals excellent detail.

"It's faster and produces less artifacts from people moving or breathing," said Zaruba.

"Artifacts," in this case, mean image distortion. Patients who have had a CT scan before know that the body must be very still for CT technology to work properly - sometimes people must hold their breath so that the machine gets precise images.

Radiologic Technologist Marilyn Thum said the biggest difference between the old and new machines is the speed of the scan.

For example, if technologists were looking at a kidney with the old scanner, patients might hold their breath for nearly a minute. Now, the patient is finished within 20 seconds, holding their breath for one-third of the time.

Thum said, "We see everything in a lot more detail - things like arteries and small vessels."

Images, or slices, that the CT scanner takes also have dimension. The pictures can be brought up on a computer screen, manipulated and examined from any angle. Essentially, technologists and doctors can look at organs or other body parts from the top, side or bottom view to help diagnose problems.

The machine takes less than a minute to produce sharp, crisp images of pretty much any body part, and those detailed pictures improve the accuracy of diagnosis, too.

"Many patients like the fact that they can get the scans here now instead of driving into the Twin Cities," said Thum.

Forget film

Another hospital advancement makes storing x-rays a thing of the past. Last month RFAH received an Enterprise Medical Imaging (EMI) system, which stores x-rays as an electronic file that can be displayed on a computer screen.

No more hanging hard copies against a light panel. Doctors and technologists look at x-rays on 14 specialized work stations within the hospital and River Falls Medical Clinic.

The advantage is if a patient has an x-ray or scan taken at any hospital within the Allina system, that x-ray can be displayed at any facility within the system.

For example, someone takes a fall from horseback then comes into RFAH. Medical staff takes x-rays and discovers that the patient needs to be transferred to another hospital. By the time the patient arrives at the transfer facility, medical personnel will have already looked at the x-ray and be ready to treat the problem.

The filmless technology removes a margin of error by not relying on film processing and transfer. It forgoes all that and pops up the image on a specialized workstation.

Besides faster diagnosis and treatment, the system also enables medical staff to consult with one another even when they're at different facilities. Thum said that Abbott Northwestern Hospital - a main facility in the Allina system - reads and interprets x-rays 24 hours a day.

The radiology technologists there can pull up any image and help their counterparts in River Falls interpret what's wrong and confirm injuries.

Zaruba expects that RFAH will be a "totally filmless environment" within the next few weeks.