Feature | July 25, 2012 | E. Hez Balch, M.D.

Improving Patient Outcomes

The shared goal between radiologist and referring physician is to achieve a streamlined patient experience

Focusing on the patient experience is a must for today’s medical practitioners. Beyond the clinical aspect, ensuring that all patient interaction is smooth, from scheduling to check-in to billing, must be a priority. This needs to be consistent throughout the entire visit or treatment, even when being referred to a third party for additional procedures.

Thus, when a doctor works with a radiology group, he wants to make sure the right processes are in place so a positive patient experience is not compromised. In the sometimes hectic and highly competitive imaging field, a radiology group looking to partner with a doctor can differentiate itself by demonstrating this type of commitment to both the physician and patients.

With increased advertising and patient-facing marketing, radiology groups are under more pressure to compete for and attract patients. Today, a group should offer skilled, fellowship-trained doctors focused on specialties. Beyond clinical prowess, the latest technology for imaging and administrative applications also is an essential requirement to have in place.

Meeting the Referring Physicians’ Needs
Doctors first and foremost are concerned with the overall “health” of their practice. When imaging is necessary, there must be a seamless relationship between the doctor’s practice and the imaging provider so the procedure will be convenient and, most importantly, effective.
With new radiology groups popping up almost overnight, a doctor may find that cutting through the clutter to choose a suitable partner isn’t always easy. There may be an inclincation to go with a larger provider, believing it will have the most resources and best doctors. But sometimes personal interaction can be difficult if a group has grown too large.

Regional providers can present an alternative if they can offer qualified doctors and advanced technology, plus the ability to provide personal attention to both referring doctors and patients. These radiology groups can offer the personal attention of smaller providers, plus the access to fellowship-trained physicians and the latest imaging technology of bigger groups.

The point is not every provider is the same. There are several fundamental elements that should be emphasized to a referring doctor looking for a group to partner with. These indicate whether a group can deliver not only a high level of clinical and administrative performance, but also the hands-on attention that best serves patients.

Technology Utilization a Key
Utilizing up-to-date technology is an important element for a radiology group to compete in today’s marketplace. Picture archiving and communication systems (PACS) and radiology information systems (RIS) have been around for quite a while, but have reached an entirely new level of functionality in recent years. A radiology partner possessing the capabilities of a sophisticated system can make the life of a referring doctor far less stressful.

Sharing images is now easier than ever with digital transfer of the files. By “wiring” the doctor’s office with the appropriate IT infrastructure and modules, radiologists can share images virtually in real time. Previously, the only way to share images remotely was via mail or courier. This would lead to images sometimes being misplaced or, worse, misidentified.

Avoiding the possibility of such time-consuming delays, digital images can be sent directly to referring physicians, complete with electronic medical records (EMR) and any other patient-specific information. This streamlined process helps doctors minimize errors and obtain the feedback on readings they need faster. So they, in turn, can accelerate the diagnostic process to improve patient care.

The functionality of RIS systems has gone far beyond a basic reporting repository. Nowadays, radiology groups can assume the entire burden of patient interaction and front-end preparation from referring doctors. By delivering this convenience, they enable the doctor to spend more time focusing on the patients and practices, which benefits everyone.

With an advanced RIS system in place, doctors need only direct the patient to the radiology group. The scheduling can take place online, insurance information can be vetted and processed, and exam prep and protocol can be shared.

All of this alleviates the administrative and operational burden from the referring physician’s staff, giving them more time to focus on the on-site needs of patients. Easing their burden also contributes to making a happier staff — another benefit.

Clinical Standards Also Important
Radiology groups should attract and retain fellowship-trained physicians who are specialized in a variety of disciplines. This is far more preferable to having generalists read all studies. For example, an X-ray specialist shouldn’t be asked to catch every nuance of a magnetic resonance image (MRI), because that is not his or her area of focus. An abundance of knowledge specific to each imaging modality is essential. Also, with a group of fellowship doctors on hand, peer reviews adhering to American College of Radiology (ACR) guidelines can be facilitated.

In terms of imaging processes, ALARA standards (as low as reasonably achievable) help minimize exposure to radiation and should always be the goal to offer the best patient care. This is only possible when a group has multiple imaging options available. From MRI to computed tomography (CT) and ultrasound to X-ray, the wider the selection of modalities available, the better. When a group has the resources to accumulate a wide variety of imaging systems, the best method for patient diagnosis is usually available.

Smaller centers, because of their size, often can offer referring doctors more consistency in terms of the imaging specialists they work with, so a relationship and level of familiarity can be cultivated. Direct access to the radiologist is another benefit of a small or regional group. If a practice is too large, a doctor might not work regularly with the same radiologist.

In conclusion, a radiology group looking to partner with a referring physician should offer advanced technology and a personalized patient experience, as well as a level of interaction that can help improve patient outcomes. Once the purview of only large groups, smaller groups today also have access to fellowship-trained physicians, advanced PACS/RIS systems and a variety of imaging modalities — making them more competitive than ever.

Sidebar: Tips to Improve the Patient Experience
Following are the key points for a radiology group working with referring physicians:

• Provide direct access to board-certified fellowship-trained physicians

• Offer online PACS/RIS for real-time access to images, reports, scheduling, etc.

• Enable access to specializations, such as abdominal imaging, diagnostic radiology, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), musculoskeletal, neuroradiology, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, vascular and interventional radiology

• Deliver all imaging modalities on-site based on the ALARA protocol, including MRI, CT, ultrasound, mammography, bone density, general radiography and fluoroscopy

• Work with partners who understand a practice’s unique needs by alleviating clinical and administrative burdens as much as possible

E. Hez Balch, M.D., is CEO and president of CIRPA (Consultants in Radiology P.A.), a North Texas-based radiology group owned and operated by board-certified and fellowship-trained doctors.

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