Content–based image retrieval systems (CBIRSs) have frequently been proposed for the use in medical image databases and PACS. Still, only few systems were developed and used in a real clinical environment. It rather seems that medical professionals define their needs and computer scientists develop systems based on data sets they receive with little or no interaction between the two groups. A first study on the diagnostic use of medical image retrieval also shows an improvement in diagnostics when using CBIRSs which underlines the potential importance of this technique. This article explains the use of an open source image retrieval system (GIFT – GNU Image Finding Tool) for the retrieval of medical images in the medical case database system CasImage that is used in daily, clinical routine in the university hospitals of Geneva. Although the base system of GIFT shows an unsatisfactory performance, already little changes in the feature space show to significantly improve the retrieval results. The performance of variations in feature space with respect to color (grey level) quantizations and changes in texture analysis (Gabor filters) is compared. Whereas stock photography relies mainly on colors for retrieval, medical images need a larger number of grey levels for successful retrieval, especially when executing feedback queries. The results also show that a too fine granularity in the grey levels lowers the retrieval quality, especially with single–image queries For the evaluation of the retrieval performance, a subset of the entire case database of more than 40,000 images is taken with a total of 3752 images. Ground truth was generated by a user who defined the expected query result of a perfect system by selecting images relevant to a given query image. The results show that a smaller number of grey levels (32–64) leads to a better retrieval performance, especially when using relevance feedback. The use of more scales and directions for the Gabor filters in the texture analysis also leads to improved results but response time is going up equally due to the larger feature space. CBIRSs can be of great use in managing large medical image databases. They allow to find images that might otherwise be lost for research and publications. They also give students students the possibility to navigate within large image repositories. In the future, CBIR might also become more important in case–based reasoning and evidence–based medicine to support the diagnostics because first studies show good results.
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