Hospital scanning centers: Not just for humans anymore

Last fall, the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland opened a new medical-imaging center that provides the latest advances in MRI scanning and other services. What's unusual about the center, however, is not so much the technology but rather the mix of clientele. That's because on a typical day, a patient undergoing an MRI might be followed into the giant scanner by a dog having exactly the same test.

Some veterinarians have their own advanced imaging equipment, but those who don't are often relegated to borrowing time in scanning centers from local hospitals--usually in the middle of the night or on weekends, when the technology is not being used to treat people. The Hopkins center, by contrast, welcomes pets during normal business hours, and it could set a trend for other hospitals looking to enhance their revenue streams by sharing their equipment with local veterinarians, according to a story in Scientific American.

Larry Gainsburg, a veterinarian who uses the new Hopkins center, tells Scientific American that the ability to bring pets in for their scans during the day is "one of the nicest things about this."

Hopkins estimates that it serves about 10 pets per week in its scanning center--and that's without having actively marketed it to veterinarians. The scans cost pet owners $2,000 on average, but Gainsburg says that about 70% of his clients still opt for the imaging when he recommends it. This is no surprise: The American Pet Products Association estimates that spending on veterinary care increased 5.1% year over year to $14.37 billion in 2013 and that it grew another 6.1% in 2014--a sure sign that Americans will spare no expense when it comes to keeping their animal friends healthy.

There are no estimates of just how much of that spending goes towards imaging. However, some of the publicly traded animal health companies have demonstrated of late that demand for diagnostic products and services is strong. For example, veterinary diagnostics maker Heska ($HSKA) saw its revenues jump 24% in the third quarter and its income more than double. And shares of IDEXX Laboratories ($IDXX) rallied during the recent JP Morgan Healthcare conference, when the company predicted stronger-than-expected growth in the fourth quarter. IDEXX plans to release those results later this week.

Rebecca Krimins, who co-directs the Hopkins scanning center, hopes it will someday prove useful not just for treating pets, but also for conducting medical research aimed at further advancing their care. For example, working dogs such as German Shepherds require advanced imaging to diagnose a common limb disorder called lumbosacral disease. If enough dogs are brought into the Hopkins center, Krimins suggests, researchers could use those scans to search for patterns in nerve degradation, which could ultimately lead to a better understanding of the disorder.

- here's the Scientific American story