X-rays have been used in medicine since 1896.  As the most common form of diagnostic imaging, they provide an invaluable tool for many types of both diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.  The use of X-ray technologies in medicine has always included the expense of maintaining the equipment required to process the images themselves, as well as the inconvenience of maintaining and archiving the physical images.  Digital X-ray technology, first introduced in the mid-1980s, addresses both of these issues.

No More Film

Unlike traditional X-ray equipment, digital X-ray systems do not require expensive image processing systems like darkrooms, specialized and dangerous chemicals, large film processors, specialized film storage, or even X-ray film itself.  Instead, digital X-ray systems use computer storage media along with laser or thermal printers similar to the ones seen in any office environment.  This leads to X-ray images that are more convenient, less expensive, and far more portable and easily stored than those produced using traditional X-ray film and processing.

The nature of digital X-rays means that the referring physician can view the requested images on a computer or tablet virtually instantly, and can often begin diagnosis within a few minutes of the examination being performed.  Digital X-ray images are not held in a single location but can be seen simultaneously by physicians who are in separate physical locations, or sent to specialists anywhere in the world in moments.  In addition, the patient can easily have the X-ray images sent to another physician or hospital, and even keep digital copies for themselves.

Another advantage of modern digital X-ray systems is flexibility.  Although there are new technologies in the field that are designed as digital from the ground up, there are also digital X-ray technologies that allow the use of existing film-based equipment through the use of a digital film cassette.  This technology, known as “Computed Radiography,” uses photo-stimulable phosphor plates that are used in existing cassette holders.  This provides immediate advantages in both savings and convenience.

Patient Benefits

Digital X-ray images have benefits to the patient as well.  First, due to the immediate availability of the images, initial diagnostic results as well as any required additional X-ray images are obtained in minutes or hours instead of days.  Second, most digital X-ray systems are capable of fine-tuning to a far greater extent than any traditional film-based radiographic systems.  Through this fine-tuning, radiologists can achieve specialized image results that can lead to a more rapid and accurate diagnosis for the patient.  In addition, digital X-ray images can be enhanced and magnified using modern computer technology in ways that traditional X-ray film cannot.

Digital radiology is one of the greatest technological advancements in medical imaging in recent years. The use of radiographic films in X-ray imaging might become obsolete in a few years, much as personal film cameras have been quickly replaced with both dedicated digital equivalents and ubiquitous cell phone cameras.