Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Light Boxes are a Thing of the Past: X-Ray Goes Digital

Pet Column for the week of January 15, 2009

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Most people have had an x-ray taken at some point in their life. Whether it is to check for wisdom teeth or a broken arm after falling off a bike, the distinct black and white image of what the medical community calls "radiographs" is a familiar site.

Imaging the body has come a long way since 1895 when Wilhelm Rontgen took the first medical x-ray using his wife's hand. Veterinarians now have access to many imaging tools, and the way they view them has drastically changed. For one, they don't practice their technique on their spouse's hand.

Dr. Robert O'Brien is a board-certified veterinary radiologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He says, "One of the greatest improvements in the past few years has been the move to use exclusively digital images." Meaning, the typical scene where a doctor walks into a room and pops an x-ray negative onto a light box is growing obsolete.

For example, you won't find light boxes anywhere at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. Instead, there are multiple computer monitors and flat screen televisions in almost every room of the clinic. Whether the image is taken by ultrasound, CT, MRI, or the traditional x-ray, they are all viewed on digital screens now.

"Going digital allows us to do several important things," mentions Dr. O'Brien. For one, we don't have to retake over- or under-exposed images because all digital radiographs are of diagnostic quality." He goes on to explain that with old-style radiographs, it was often necessary to retake shots because the films always had areas that were too dark or light.

Dr. O'Brien also notes that, "it's safer for veterinary technicians now," since they were the ones retaking images until the quality was good enough to interpret. Exposing people to less radiation is a great advancement, but the benefits of digital images don't stop there.

Because of the higher quality image, "we can detect many more lesions with much higher accuracy," says Dr. O'Brien. The images can also easily be emailed from a local veterinarian living in a remote area to a specialist like Dr. O'Brien for a consultation in a matter of second.

"Digital images have really made me change the way that I see films," says Dr. O'Brien. Years ago, the only method a doctor or veterinarian had to view a radiograph was with a light box. But now, the tools are limitless. The computer programs available to read images are similar to the photo-editing software many people have on their home computer.

Once the images are uploaded into the program, they can be enhanced, rotated, cropped, and zoomed in on with a special magnification device. This allows veterinarians to see lumps and bumps that would not have been visible on an old-style film.

As a result of this new technology, if you are in need of a unique lamp, there will continue to be a steady flow of light boxes headed for the surplus pile of most medical facilities.