DICOM groups information into data sets. That means that a file of a chest x-ray image, for example, actually contains the patient ID within the file, so that the image can never be separated from this information by mistake. This is similar to the way that image formats such as JPEG can also have embedded tags to identify and otherwise describe the image.
A DICOM data object consists of a number of attributes, including items such as name, ID, etc., and also one special attribute containing the image pixel data (i.e. logically, the main object has no “header” as such, being merely a list of attributes, including the pixel data). A single DICOM object can have only one attribute containing pixel data. For many modalities, this corresponds to a single image. However, the attribute may contain multiple “frames”, allowing storage of cine loops or other multi-frame data. Another example is NM data, where an NM image, by definition, is a multi-dimensional multi-frame image. In these cases, three- or four-dimensional data can be encapsulated in a single DICOM object. Pixel data can be compressed using a variety of standards, including JPEG, Lossless JPEG, JPEG 2000, and Run-length encoding (RLE). LZW (zip) compression can be used for the whole data set (not just the pixel data), but this has rarely been implemented.
DICOM uses three different Data Element encoding schemes. With Explicit Value Representation (VR) Data Elements, for VRs that are not OB, OW, OF, SQ, UT, or UN, the format for each Data Element is: GROUP (2 bytes) ELEMENT (2 bytes) VR (2 bytes) LengthInByte (2 bytes) Data (variable length). For the other Explicit Data Elements or Implicit Data Elements, see section 7.1 of Part 5 of the DICOM Standard.
The same basic format is used for all applications, including network and file usage, but when written to a file, usually a true “header” (containing copies of a few key attributes and details of the application which wrote it) is added.
To promote identical grayscale image display on different monitors and consistent hard-copy images from various printers, the DICOM committee developed a lookup table to display digitally assigned pixel values. To use the DICOM grayscale standard display function (GSDF), images must be viewed (or printed) on devices that have this lookup curve or on devices that have been calibrated to the GSDF curve.
In addition to a Value Representation, each attribute also has a Value Multiplicity to indicate the number of data elements contained in the attribute. For character string value representations, if more than one data element is being encoded, the successive data elements are separated by the backslash character “\”.
DICOM consists of services, most of which involve transmission of data over a network. The file format for offline media is a later addition to the standard.
The DICOM Store service is used to send images or other persistent objects (structured reports, etc.) to a picture archiving and communication system (PACS) or workstation.
The DICOM Storage Commitment service is used to confirm that an image has been permanently stored by a device (either on redundant disks or on backup media, e.g. burnt to a CD). The Service Class User (SCU: similar to a client), a modality or workstation, etc., uses the confirmation from the Service Class Provider (SCP: similar to a server), an archive station for instance, to make sure that it is safe to delete the images locally.
This enables a workstation to find lists of images or other such objects and then retrieve them from a picture archiving and communication system.
The DICOM Modality Worklist service provides a list of imaging procedures that have been scheduled for performance by an image acquisition device (sometimes referred to as a modality system). The items in the worklist include relevant details about the subject of the procedure (patient ID, name, sex, and age), the type of procedure (equipment type, procedure description, procedure code) and the procedure order (referring physician, accession number, reason for exam). An image acquisition device, such as a CT scanner, queries a service provider, such as a RIS, to get this information which is then presented to the system operator and is used by the imaging device to populate details in the image metadata.
Prior to the use of the DICOM Modality Worklist service, the scanner operator was required to manually enter all the relevant details. Manual entry is slower and introduces the risk of misspelled patient names, and other data entry errors.
Modality Performed Procedure Step
A complementary service to Modality Worklist, this enables the modality to send a report about a performed examination including data about the images acquired, beginning time, end time, and duration of a study, dose delivered, etc. It helps give the radiology department a more precise handle on resource (acquisition station) use. Also known as MPPS, this service allows a modality to better coordinate with image storage servers by giving the server a list of objects to send before or while actually sending such objects.
The DICOM Print service is used to send images to a DICOM Printer, normally to print an “X-Ray” film. There is a standard calibration (defined in DICOM Part 14) to help ensure consistency between various display devices, including hard copy printout.
Off-line media (files)
The format for off-line media files is specified in Part 10 of the DICOM Standard. Such files are sometimes referred to as “Part 10 files”.
DICOM restricts the filenames on DICOM media to 8 characters (some systems wrongly use 8.3, but this does not conform to the standard). No information must be extracted from these names (PS3.10 Section 188.8.131.52). This is a common source of problems with media created by developers who did not read the specifications carefully. This is a historical requirement to maintain compatibility with older existing systems. It also mandates the presence of a media directory, the DICOMDIR file, which provides index and summary information for all the DICOM files on the media. The DICOMDIR information provides substantially greater information about each file than any filename could, so there is less need for meaningful file names.
DICOM files typically have a .dcm file extension if they are not part of a DICOM media (which requires them to be without extension).
The Uniform Type Identifier type for DICOM files is org.nema.dicom.
There is also an ongoing media exchange test and “connectathon” process for CD media and network operation that is organized by the IHE organization.