By Paul Shumway
Radiology is an essential component of modern medicine. It plays an integral role in the prevention, detection, and diagnosis of disease, as well as in treatment delivery and patient care. Moreover, its role is expected to grow in the coming years.
Between 2021 and 2028, the global medical imaging market is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5.2% (Research and Markets, 2021). Trends fueling the growth include more preventive healthcare initiatives, an aging population, and the prevalence of chronic conditions such as cardiac diseases and cancer. Imaging already is a key part of clinical treatment plans; it promises to become only more so.
The problem is that the number of available medical imaging professionals isn’t keeping pace with the rising demands on the field. Not enough people are going into the field to keep up with the growth.
One recent analysis published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (2021), for example, predicts the United States could have a shortfall of 10,300–35,600 “other” clinical specialists, including radiologists, by 2034. Unfortunately, this situation is neither new nor unique. Even before the pandemic intensified the pressure on imaging professionals, clinical leaders were trying to address a worldwide radiologist shortage (Allyn, 2020; Makary & Alexander, 2020). The upshot: Radiology groups and departments everywhere likely will continue to face shortages both of radiologists and radiology technologists even as imaging volumes increase.
This disparity between the supply of radiology professionals and the demand for medical images is putting the squeeze on radiology groups, with the potential to create patient safety issues such as delays in diagnosis or care delivery, miscommunication, and the need for redundant radiology exposure. However, such risks can be mitigated by adopting workflows that streamline radiology operations, reduce professional strains, and satisfy patient expectations.
Deliver on expectations
The imaging squeeze is forcing greater efficiency and effectiveness from radiology departments. Yet they are challenged to accomplish these goals in ways that also enhance care quality and the patient experience.
In truth, the imaging squeeze is also being driven by factors that extend well beyond internal staffing needs. Patients, too, are insisting on more. Long gone are the days when patients just accepted that it would take three or four days to receive an imaging report. Now, patients and their referring providers want information as fast as possible so they can quickly reach the appropriate treatment plan. In other words, speed and efficiency matter to everyone.
As imaging has become a more routine part of care, patients have started to assume that they will come in, get their scan, leave, and obtain results quickly and easily. They also believe they should be able to get their results without having to return to their provider. That’s become especially important since the advent of COVID-19.
Aligning with these ongoing expectations requires radiology groups to rethink traditional operations and workflows from two perspectives: that of their patients, and that of their referring providers. The desire from all parts of the healthcare spectrum for quality and convenience at speed increases the pressure on imaging technology to enable better workflows.
One radiology group, for example, recently reexamined its process for sharing patient images (Novarad Enterprise Healthcare Solutions, 2021). The traditional method of sharing images via CD was becoming increasingly burdensome given the 10–15 minutes it took to create each CD multiplied by the group’s annual volume of more than 100,000 exams. Further concerns arose from frequent access difficulties on the part of referring providers and patients. Lost CDs and images that failed to open held the potential to delay diagnoses and patient care, or even to force redundant imaging.
To make it easier and faster to share and view images on demand, the group moved from using CDs to leveraging highly secure QR codes that make images from any DICOM source accessible within minutes. Not only can patients and providers use the QR codes to share images via text or email, but physicians can save as much as 10 minutes opening large files such as mammography studies. The simplicity of sharing images and medical reports immediately, without burdening IT staff, has helped the radiology group save time and better support its patients and referring providers, while at the same time alleviating potential care quality risks.
Streamlined workflows increase quality, decrease risk
Better image-sharing workflows are just one illustration of how radiology groups can streamline operations to mitigate the risks posed by the imaging squeeze. Other workflows to evaluate might include how referring providers are notified when imaging reports are ready, or how to most effectively read and compare a wide variety of images.
Report notifications can be particularly problematic for both radiologists and referring providers. Historically, providers have discussed the availability of imaging reports primarily through telephone calls, which tend to be disruptive and inefficient. When referring providers can instead send a text alert that makes the completed report immediately accessible, they minimize disruptions for both providers and enhance care planning.
All-in-one radiologist workstations are another important workflow improvement. Configuring workstations so that radiologists can review their worklists and multiple imaging modalities—mammography, cardiology, 3D, etc.—without moving between workstations can increase productivity and accuracy to help more patients receive timely care. Today’s technology, such as 3D rendering, AI, and streaming, can help such all-in-one workstations display images and information quickly, making radiology reads fast and efficient.
Patient safety risks certainly aren’t exclusive to radiology workflows. Yet because of the imaging squeeze, radiology groups have a unique imperative to minimize risks by streamlining their operations for maximum responsiveness. Thus, leaning into technologies that make radiology workflows easier and faster is a vital component to safeguard high-quality patient care.
Paul Shumway is the senior vice president of customer success at Novarad. A member of Novarad’s founding team, Shumway looks for ways to help address technical, clinical, and business challenges—such as the shortage of radiology professionals—with sustainable and realistic solutions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Allyn, J. (2020, February 19). International radiology societies tackle radiologist shortage. Radiological Society of North America. https://www.rsna.org/news/2020/february/international-radiology-societies-and-shortage
Association of American Medical Colleges. (2021, June 11). AAMC report reinforces mounting physician shortage. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/press-releases/aamc-report-reinforces-mounting-physician-shortage
Makary, M. S., & Alexander, J. (2020, July 21). Radiologist wellness and burnout in the COVID-19 era. Diagnostic Imaging. https://www.diagnosticimaging.com/view/radiologist-wellness-and-burnout-in-the-covid-19-era
Novarad Enterprise Healthcare Solutions. (2021). Ramapo Radiology Associates: CryptoChart case study. https://blog.novarad.net/ramapo-radiology-associates-cryptochart-case-study
Research and Markets. (2021, March 10). Global medical imaging market 2021-2028 – increasing demand for advanced diagnostic systems in developing countries and growing trends of market player collaborations. https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2021/03/10/2190167/28124/en/Global-Medical-Imaging-Market-2021-2028-Increasing-Demand-for-Advanced-Diagnostic-Systems-in-Developing-Countries-and-Growing-Trends-of-Market-Player-Collaborations.html