Ogeechee Technical College has a new degree program that is garnering much attention around the state and in the southeast. According to Barry Turner, executive director of public relations, OTC is the only educational institution in the country to have a Radiology Picture Archiving and Communication System (PACS) Specialist program.
"As newer medical techniques and processes become available, training of new students, as well as retraining of those already in the medical profession, becomes necessary to prepare those in the various medical disciplines to meet the constant demand for change," Turner said. "Federal law mandates that all medical records be digitized by 2012. PACS is an integral part of that process, and training people in the medical field to operate those systems is going to be a key component."
In the past, radiologists would look at film of an x-ray, and patients would carry their film from doctor to doctor as needed. That is changing. Now, x-rays are being digitized and transmitted via the internet to a radiologist "down the hall" or across the world.
Managing this data and preparing it for transmission is the mission of the PACS system. While serving as director of medical programs at OTC, local physician Dr. John Martin saw the need several years ago for training in this area.
"President Bush mandated that electronic medical records be put in place." Martin said. "A large component of that is PACS - making radiology into a digital image. Our radiology technicians needed hands on training in this area."
With the help of local radiologist Dr. Don Connell, OTC secured a donated copy of a PACS software program produced by Avreo, a leading producer of software for the medical profession.
"The value of that software is about $450,000," Martin said. "In addition, they donated an annual maintenance agreement that is about $75,000 per year. We would not have been able to offer this program without those donations."
Lynda Tinker, radiologic technology program director for OTC, said the college had to purchase a server and a piece of x-ray equipment, but that was it.
"Dr. Martin had the vision when he was here," Tinker said. "He knew that this is where the medical field was headed, and he wanted to make sure that our students were trained and prepared. This was totally his vision, and the success of this program is greater than any of us could have imagined."
Tinker said the program has been full since it began two years ago.
"We have 25 students in various stages of the program," she said. "Depending on your background and training prior to entering, the program itself is anywhere from one to two years."
Since OTC is on the only college to offer this training, reaching potential students has gone beyond the OTC's service area.
"The marketing approach to a program such as PACS is a bit different since the scope of the program reaches much further than our typical service area, which means that we attempt to attract students through professional trade journals, for example, rather than just the local media," Turner said. "Having such a unique program allows us to utilize unique marketing techniques as well--not only through media based advertising, but through attendance at conferences at which many industry professionals will have the opportunity to learn about our PACS program."
Martin said many people in the industry responsible for operating PACS systems "fell" into it without formal training.
"Their knowledge is manufacturer specific knowledge, in other words, they sort of trained themselves on that one piece of software," he said. "We knew that there were industry standards that had already been put out there, and we needed to teach our students those standards so that they would understand the system as a whole and be able to take that understanding from software package to software package. That is the difference between industry knowledge and vendor specific knowledge."
Tinker said that graduates of the OTC program can receive national certification through PARCA - PACS Administrators Registry and Certification Association.
"With our students receiving certification through a national professional association, we can measure our effectiveness as teachers and trainers if they are passing an exam given by someone else," Tinker said. "It also adds a level of certification that our students can achieve."
Turner said he doesn't expect OTC to be the only college providing comprehensive training in this area for long. "I'm sure that other institutions will get on the bandwagon at some point, but for now, we are kind of leading the pack, and we are looking at expanding our training opportunities in this area."
Martin serves as medical director of the East Georgia Regional Medical Center Comprehensive Wound Healing Center. He also serves on the advisory committee for the PACS program, and is the treasurer of the Executive Board of the Ogeechee Technical College Foundation.