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Washoe Medical Center invested $2.7 million in its new PET/CT scanner, a high-tech diagnostic tool that relies on massive amounts of computing power to create its images.

Yet the system won't work correctly without an old-fashioned business value great customer service.

The PET/CT scanner, which Washoe Medical officials are rolling out this week, combines two types of diagnostic imaging to help oncologists and other specialists pinpoint diseases such as cancer.

The PET side of the equation that stands for "positron emission tomography" uses nuclear medicine to show how cells in the body are functioning.

It's a technology that's been around for a while, but radiologists who use it have difficulty pinpointing the exact location of a malfunction such as the start of a cancer growth.

The CT side of the equipment the initials stand for "computer tomography" also is a tried-and-true technology.Although it shows a good picture of the body's structure, it doesn't provide any information about how cells are functioning.

Washoe Medical Center's new PET/CT scanner merges the two technologies, allowing radiologists to see the body's function and structure simultaneously.

For all the technology that creates the system, managers of the medical center have been paying equal amounts of attention to staff training.

"The No.

1 thing we have to focus on is customer service," says Don Miller, supervisor of nuclear medicine at Washoe Medical."They can't be push-button people."

The reason for the emphasis on patient service: The quality of a PET scan depends in large measure on the chemistry of the patient's body.

It can be upset by blood sugar that's too high, meaning the scanner's scheduler needs to make sure patients understand the prescanning ritual.

It can be upset by a nervous patient whose body grows cold in response.

Miller recruits nationally for nuclear medicine technologists, typically hiring candidates who combine excellent job skills with a wellrounded life.

Once they're on board, he tests them twice before he allows them to work with patients, and he keeps a close eye on their customer service skills.

"We cannot afford for PET scanning to become a production line," he says.

A crew of five technologists work with the PET/CT scanner.

Because Washoe Medical Center is a regional cancer center, the PET/CT scanner will draw patients from the eastern slopes of the Sierra including parts of California to the middle of Nevada, says Ted Roberson, manager ofWashoe Imaging.

Along with oncologists, the new equipment is expected draw use from pulmonary and neurological specialists.

While physicians have longed for improved information from scanning equipment, Washoe Medical Center devoted more than two years to selecting the General Electric system they installed.

A key question, Roberson says,was ensuring that the system could be easily upgraded to reflect technological advancements.

Then, too,Washoe Medical officials needed to do some hard numbers-crunching to make certain the new equipment would pay for itself.

With a cost of several thousand dollars for each scan, insurance companies watch use of PET/CT equipment closely and carefully define when they'll pay for use of the technology, says Larry Weber, director ofWashoe Imaging.

In many instances, he says, a PET/CT scan may be a cost-effective alternative to the exploratory surgery that specialists have undertaken in the past.

Those surgeries typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"This is life-changing technology,"Weber says."It's life-saving."


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