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Paper. People spend their lives shuffling it. They mail it and fax it. They fill out forms in triplicate, file legal documents and churn out documents on their computer printers.

Then they throw it away, clogging the nation's landfill with mounds and mounds of paper. Each of the nation's 780,000 lawyers goes through an average of one ton of paper each year, the American Bar Association Journal estimates.Although paper documents our existence from cradle to grave, the advent of document imaging is likely to make radical changes in how people store and retrieve information.

"The whole scoop behind document imaging is to take a snapshot of a physical document and store it electronically in some form of electronic medium," said Kary Burns, electronic information management specialist for Uinta Business Systems.

Desktop scanners convert paper documents into sharp electronic images stored on magnetic or optical computer disks. A single disk can hold the images of enough physical documents to fill a four-drawer filing cabinet.

Document imaging is not limited to storing the printed word. The office of Dr. Robert Horne, a Salt Lake orthopedic surgeon, recently installed document imaging to store patient records, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) films and still photographs taken during arthroscopic procedures.

Horne said in a recent interview that the technology enables his office to provide better information to insurance companies, which helps them process claims faster. "The more pieces of information I can send them, the more accurately they can adjudicate the billings," Horne said.

The document imaging equipment, part of a new office computer system, has helped the office reduce accounts payable by 25 percent.

Another motivation to convert to use document imaging was to save office space.

When Horne moved his office "across the parking lot" movers charged him $6,000. "It was mostly paper," he said.

Since X-ray film is loaded with silver, it is heavy and requires reinforced shelving on which to store it.

Medical professionals are required by law to keep original documents for two years and copies of patient records for seven years. After two years, they may be stored on disk and the originals destroyed, said Bonnie Schroader, Horne's office manager.

When stored on CD ROM (read only memory), the information may be managed, stored, viewed and distributed but may not be altered, which is critical if the information becomes evidence in a legal proceeding.

"When we scan it into the system, we can make it so that file cannot be changed to protect the integrity of the record," Schroader said.

Document imaging also enables the office to fill requests for medical records made by attorneys representing patients who may have been injured in industrial accidents, slip and fall mishaps, automobile accidents or injured on the ski slope.

Requests for such information have escalated during the past five years, Schroader said. "I have one person, and that's all she does three days a week, handle medical requests."

Burns said some businesses and government agencies have implemented document imaging in their computer networks because the cost of the technology has fallen and computer users have become more educated about its uses.

The Office of the State Court Administrator, the State Division of Water Rights and the city of South Salt Lake are among a handful of government agencies using the technology.

While some users like the idea of saving paper, industry experts say the concept of a paperless office is far from reality.

"A side benefit is to save some resources, but the real impetus behind this is being able to access and use information easier. People spend so many hours a day searching for information, searching for a document in a file. The idea of this is, it lets you retrieve these documents and information much easier," said Joe Weis, president of Uinta Business Systems.

Weis estimates the sale of document imaging software and related computer equipment will comprise about one-third of his company's business within the next five years.

"The cost is low enough right now. It's mostly a process of customers who have the need for it understanding what is available," Weis said.