11/16/2009 - ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- An X-ray image is still pretty much the same today as it was when Master Sgt. Arlo Southall entered the radiology career field in 1995.
How that image is produced, however, has changed quite a bit.
Today Southall is the radiology section chief at the Robins medical clinic, where X-ray images are digitized and kept as computer files.
When he first started in the field, X-ray film was developed with chemicals, much like photographers developed film before digital cameras made darkrooms obsolete.
Of the three X-ray machines in use at Robins, two create plates that are inserted into another machine that, in a dry process, creates a digitized image that can be viewed on a computer screen. A third X-ray machine doesn't even require a plate. The images it takes go directly to a computer.
One of the biggest advantages of that, Southall said, is the archiving. With it all being kept on computer, any image can be instantly located.
"It's about a million times easier," he said. "You aren't trying to locate missing films."
They can still produce a film if necessary, or they can put the images on a CD if a patient needs to take them to another doctor off base.
In 1999 Robins became one of the first in the Air Force to convert to digitized X-ray imaging, also known as the Picture Archiving Communications System, or PACS.
The area employs 13 people -- six military members and seven contractors. They are all called radiology technologists. Airmen are needed in the field, in part because they are required in combat zones to make X-rays of battle injuries. They also have two interns from the radiology program at Middle Georgia Technical College.
It's up to a doctor to look at the images and make a diagnosis, but experienced technicians can usually spot anomalies, Southall said. They do not discuss their observations with the patient, however. That's strictly left to the physician.
When their regular radiologist is out, a radiologist at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas can look at the images via computer and give a diagnosis.
They also operate two fluoroscopy machines. Instead of taking still images, those take moving pictures. Barium, a white liquid that shows up on X-ray, is used to show the physician how fluid is moving through the body. Someone with swallowing problems, for example, might ingest barium and the fluoroscopy would allow the doctor to see how it moves through the throat.
The radiology area here also does ultrasounds and mammography. Tech Sgt. Stephanie Norris said it's gratifying to be a part of the all-important early detection of breast cancer.
"There are a lot of patients I've done the mammograms on who have ended up having breast cancer and we are the first ones to help diagnose it," she said.