In 1983, Fujifilm launched Fuji Computed Radiography (FCR), becoming the first company in the world to offer a digital X-ray diagnostic imaging system. Medical professionals quickly learned the merits of digital diagnostic images, including ease of storage and processing. They found that images from a variety of tests and procedures could be shared within and among facilities, and the images could even be used for remote diagnosis and consultation.
Recognizing this trend, Fujifilm saw the opportunity to leverage the technologies it had developed for FCR and contribute to the evolution of connectivity within and among medical facilities. Thus inspired, Fujifilm developed SYNAPSE, a medical IT solution that empowers users to comprehensively manage medical diagnostic images, share them within and among medical facilities, and process them for specific diagnostic applications.
In the mid-1990s, at the time SYNAPSE was first conceived, Europe and the US were beginning to manage and share medical diagnostic images via private networks with PACS (Picture Archiving and Communication System). What made Fujifilm’s SYNAPSE concept different was that it used the emerging Internet and web technologies instead of private networks. It was, in essence, a Web-based PACS.
Since the Internet makes building networks easy and convenient, a Web-based PACS would greatly reduce hurdles to implementation for small and large facilities alike. Thus, for example, a large hospital would be able to share diagnostic images with a small clinic, and remote diagnosis would become more practical as well.
At the same time, the digitalization of medical imaging was continuing apace, yet Fujifilm only had FCR to offer in the market. A leading company in the industry, Fujifilm decided to add innovative IT systems to their product lineup that could handle all types of medical imaging applications. A sense of the crisis the company might face if it did not meet these emerging needs was a strong motivation in making SYNAPSE a reality.
At the start of the SYNAPSE R&D project, a long series of in-depth discussions led to a radical conclusion—one that would greatly affect the direction Fujifilm’s innovation would take. Even though Fujifilm was a Japanese company, the team decided to begin developing SYNAPSE in the United States.
One of the team members at the time comments about the thinking behind the decision: “The US was the birthplace of the Internet, and it was also the leader in the areas of telecommunications standards and operating systems for computing. In addition, academic and military use of PACs was widespread, and there were many examples of medical connectivity to learn from. Of course, Fujifilm wasn’t an IT company, and so establishing a key R&D presence on the US West Coast was pretty daunting for us. But in order to quickly get a handle on the latest technologies, expertise, and market needs and to advance our R&D project, we were prepared to face the challenges head on.”
The US did not disappoint as a location, and soon Fujifilm found itself in the midst of the rapid innovation it had envisioned. In 1998, FUJIFILM Medical Systems, USA, Inc. (FMSU) launched a development team centered on members who had been key to the development of some of the most advanced PACS systems in use at that time. These experts were in turn supported by software engineers from a variety of different backgrounds. This team began making SYNAPSE a reality at a breathtaking pace.
One engineer on the team looks back on those early days: “Although we were later entrants to the PACS market, we were able to combine our proprietary, cutting-edge digital image processing and data compression technologies quite flexibly with the emerging technology of the Internet and make it accessible via the Windows platform. This combination was an extremely new idea at the time. In addition, we leveraged our location in the US to bring experts in related technologies onto the project very quickly, which was a huge advantage in realizing new innovations.”
Fujifilm’s ambitious approach to R&D was the driving force behind the project’s success. PACS quickly evolved from a system used only in very limited environments to one that harnessed the power of the Internet to allow qualified personnel to access crucial medical images at any time.
Fujifilm also began to explore new ways to work with clients in developing IT solutions. To facilitate the introduction of SYNAPSE in a medical facility, it was important to optimize the system’s workflow for the individual medical care environment. Further, in each medical workplace, medical professionals required guidance on how to access and use each type of information the system makes available. Fujifilm recognized the need to work with clients in new ways to assure uptake of the technological innovations.
Therefore, in preparation for the launch of SYNAPSE in the US in 1999, FMSU established a specialized consulting team to assist in the analysis and presentation of workflows, system design and development, user training, and other areas. FMSU recruited exceptional consulting talent from local IT companies and built a strong organization.
A team member recounts the effort: “Fujifilm had had no consulting function in the IT area. We became aware of how important this function was because of our R&D experience in the US, where medical connectivity was extremely advanced for the time. Establishing this consulting function was just as great an innovation as the product itself.”
Within five years of its launch, SYNAPSE had become a valued solution at over 1,000 medical facilities in the US, Europe, Japan, and other regions. Offering outstanding medical connectivity based on the convenient and efficient sharing of information, SYNAPSE made possible initial diagnosis at a local clinic, followed by more complete testing and treatment at a larger medical facility, in turn followed by periodic monitoring at the original local clinic. SYNAPE’s rapid rate of adoption was due in large part to its capability, in situations like this, to contribute significantly to the quality of medical care, including support for the important objective of informed consent.
Today, SYNAPSE continues to provide new benefits around the world. For example, the system is helping countries with too few hospitals to properly serve their populations or to offer their broad territories enhanced medical care delivery.
Fifteen years after the launch of SYNAPSE, many of those who participated in its development are continuing to pursue new innovations at Fujifilm, such as building the company’s lineup of leading-edge medical imaging solutions with advanced search capabilities that help detect patterns in images, empowering diagnosticians. One original development team member who is still involved in the product commented: “The fact that we have always been about images is a huge advantage to us. I’m determined to leverage this strength and help make sure that SYNAPSE continues to evolve over the long term.”