|Image courtesy thisfabtrek.com|
I'll not delve into specifics much, as they probably won't help you with your PACS problems, nor will they help you help me with mine. The generalities however, should prove more valuable.
The bottom line is quite simple, really. Our problems stem in greatest part from lack of communication. This gap occurred primarily between IT and the vendor, but there was also a rather large chasm between the radiologist end-users and the other two entities. Let's talk about that one first.
As an electrical engineer, I'm well-versed in the concept of the feedback loop, particularly the need in a circuit for negative feedback:
We rads had (or more honestly, exercised) only limited feedback options when it came to PACS. We the rads never really put our heads together to create a grievance list. Yes, one rad here or there would get upset with slow speeds, workstation crashes, slow scrolling, etc. Sometimes these could be fixed by the PACS administrators, sometimes only marginally improved. Someone would get a personal profile remade, although we never learned why this would help, someone would get his worklists redone. And so it went. In this way, little problems propagated into big problems.
I'll take some level of personal responsibility. I was so, well, jaded may not be the word...disheartened? Complacent? Resigned? Well, I had more or less decided that nothing would change until we had a major upgrade, whenever that might be, and I found ways to tolerate the glitches. It took two of my former partners, now bosses, who recently started working nights, to say "ENOUGH!" The minor slow-downs become quite major when you're trying to pump out dozens and dozens of studies through the wee hours of the morning. To be fair, there was further deterioration of the system during their initiation into the dark side (I mean dark hours), to the point that the workstations crashed, and ultimately there were a number of system outages, which certainly brought the whole situation to a head. The newly-minted night-stalkers began the campaign that has brought us to the brink of...a solution.
Communication is paramount as always, and we've made some great strides in that realm. First, we insisted on having a call-team from both IT and the vendor. We were briefly relegated to the "Help" desk; when they actually answered, they were little more than a rather slow answering service for IT. Second, we streamlined the process for rads to report problems directly. This was prompted by a response to a complaint implying that no one had ever mentioned the problem before. When Donald Trump's cell phone number was published, instead of having a little hissy-fit as we saw with a certain Senator, Trump simply put a campaign ad on his line. This inspired us to create an email thread wherein any and all PACS complaints could be reported directly to the right people. And report we did. Initially, there were tens of emails per day; this has tapered off to only one or two. We have definitely made progress.
While we physicians can be quite problematic, the deeper institutional snafus lie with IT, the vendor, and their somewhat dysfunctional relationship. There will be yet another meeting to more precisely define just how that relationship will progress, and while I detest meetings, that is one that should have been held years ago. You see, there really wasn't a single point of failure, but there were quite a few, shall we say, lost opportunities for improvement.
It turns out that one of our major outages was a network problem, caused by an update push that got out of hand. Another slow-down was the result of the EMR grabbing too much bandwidth. There was a bug in a NetApp image server that took us down. OK, we assume these things happen and can be fixed.
But it took a village full of angry radiologists to bring to light that yearly service on some of the servers might not do the trick, particularly when a couple of the critical servers running SunOS/Solaris weren't touched at all. The latter had been running on an elderly version of the OS, and had a bug that was fixed umpteen versions ago. Update the OS, kill the bug. And here is where we had trouble. Putting it simply, everyone assumed the other entity was going to take care of stuff like this, if they assumed anything at all about it. And so nothing happened until the recent unpleasantness.
We found that hardware was sometimes purchased without consulting the vendor, and then retrofitted with the vendor's help when it wasn't quite right. Perhaps both parties could be a little more proactive here, so we can all ask for permission instead of forgiveness.
Computers are made by imperfect human beings, and are thus imperfect themselves. To assume otherwise is naive at best. And so in a mission-critical area such as PACS, one must be ready for the inevitable glitch. There has to be a downtime plan, and an out-and-out disaster recovery solution. Guess what? We have neither. To my knowledge, the downtime plan hasn't been changed since I spoke at RANZCR in Perth in 2010: after four hours of outage, we start printing to film. Unfortunately, we no longer have any film printers. The next best thing, which we have been having to do, is to read directly from the modality's monitor. It isn't optimal, but it works, sort of. As for a full-fledged disaster, data is stored offsite as required. But it's on tape and recovering might take a very long time. If we could muster the resources. Let's hope it doesn't happen.
PACS, as it turns out, is the only Tier One service that does NOT have a proper downtime solution. Why did we get left out? Money. It was hard to justify a complete, mirrored, automatic fail-over that would only be used a small fraction of the time. Unless you happen to be a trauma patient in the Emergency Department, where life-and-death decisions are put on hold while someone fiddles with the server. Then it seems perfectly justified.
In the end, we all serve one customer, and that is YOU, the patient. Everything we do in this business, every decision we make, every scrap of hardware and line of code we purchase and use is meant to promote your health and well-being. It was said by some that we radiologists were "paying the price" for the various challenges I've outlined. That's true to some extent, but the real victims, at least potentially, are the patients, and that CANNOT be allowed to happen.
I've been blogging about PACS for almost 11 years, and my basic message hasn't really changed much. PACS IS the Radiology Department, and the hospital cannot function without it. Making this all work, and work properly, is in huge part a matter of communication. You have seen what happens when the discourse fails or doesn't happen at all. The downtime plan, or lack thereof, illustrates what happens when one of the groups involved in PACS, the rads, becomes disenfranchised with respect to the decision process. One of us could have very easily convinced the powers that be that we cannot tolerate a four-hour gap in service. We weren't asked to do so; we didn't even know the question had been posed. Now we do. And I am cautiously optimistic that this will improve, as will the rest of our experience.
I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to excoriate the majority of PACS and EMR vendors while I'm on this particular rant. You are still not making user-friendly software. We all know it. PACS is bad enough, but our EMR and its CPOE (Computerized Physician Order Entry) is so very poorly written and implemented as to drive a good number of physicians into early retirement. Seriously. This garbage is served up as caviar to, and purchased by, those who DON'T HAVE TO USE IT, and again the physicians are disenfranchised. This too will negatively impact patient care, and it CANNOT, well, it SHOULD NOT be allowed to happen. But it is.
Let's have a meeting about THAT, shall we?