As telehealth takes center stage, providers address a growing list of challenges with teleradiology

The COVID crisis has showcased for a worldwide audience telehealth’s potential for bringing top-notch medical care wherever it’s needed. Safety-minded Americans have registered their approval by voting with their screens: The CDC reported a 154% jump in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 vs. the same week in 2019.

The trend has only continued since then, and physicians have voiced their buy-in even more directly than patients. In October, the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition released survey results from the summer, when the group worked with the American Medical Association, state medical societies and other organizations to survey close to 1,600 doctors and other clinicians. Among the project’s key findings:

  • More than 80% of medical professionals say telehealth has improved the timeliness of care for their patients.
  • 68% are motivated to increase telehealth use in their practices.
  • 60% believe telehealth has improved their patients’ health.
  • 55% say telehealth has improved their job satisfaction.

The AMA cited these findings in November when it announced it would advocate with lawmakers and regulators on codifying rules governing coverage of, access to and reimbursement for telehealth.

The upshot is that telehealth took off in 2020 and shows no signs of slackening anytime soon.

What does this mean for the medical specialty that had been growing in telehealth utilization since 1994? That year the technology famously connected referring clinicians in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with diagnostic radiologists in Massachusetts.

Fast-forward to the present. In a review article running in the December edition of the American Journal of Roentgenology, “Emerging Challenges and Opportunities in the Evolution of Teleradiology,” Tarek Hanna, MD, of Emory University and colleagues write:

In recent years, teleradiology has evolved from an occasional tool for convenience and, at times, a perceived marketplace disruption and threat into an increasingly systems-focused healthcare partner in improving access to imaging care across the nation. … Ultimately, teleradiology can help increase imaging efficiency and mitigate both geographic and temporal discrepancies in imaging care.

The convergence of society’s embrace of telehealth with teleradiology’s readiness to contribute suggests an existing avenue may be broadening for radiology practices and departments to incorporate a teleradiology partnership into their broader staffing solution―not just for nights and weekends.

Volatility-proof

The demand for such a scenario may be as robust as the supply is mature. That’s because the pandemic has shown buyers of teleradiology services increasingly open to mixing and matching tele with, as needed, hiring staff and leveraging locum tenens relationships.

Further, the COVID crisis has only exacerbated the burnout epidemic within radiology—even as recruiting, hiring and retaining rads has gotten tougher across the board.

One physician practice conquering this course of hurdles is The Portland Clinic, a five-site, 30-specialty group running five locations in Oregon. In a case study chronicling the group’s progress, Medical Imaging Review reports the practice added a teleradiology component as part of an open-minded staffing strategy when two members of its in-house rad staff announced they were making a career change.

The collaboration, which brought in a select group from the 500-plus radiologists of Minnesota-based vRad, has allowed The Portland Clinic to get through COVID and move confidently toward the future even if the present level of volatility were to continue.

“For [referring] doctors who just want a good, clean report, the improved turnaround times [with teleradiology are] really helpful,” Lorrie Mullins, who manages the group’s radiology operations, tells MIR. “And they got to know their teleradiologists over time, recognizing the names they saw on their reports—it just created a strong dynamic that benefited everyone, most importantly the patients.”

The coverage also quotes neurologist Michah Brasseur, MD, who says remote but ready access to subspecialized neuroradiologists has “provided another level of reassurance that subtle, but potentially important changes on imaging studies would be identified. Knowing a neuroradiologist was reviewing these studies made me feel quite confident in the final reports.”

Pre-burnout buster

Another benefit vRad clients are lately reporting is teleradiology’s aptness for not only countering present burnout but also heading off risk factors before they bring about future cases.

vRad sales and marketing VP Evan Ebner says she’s seen this effect prove highly satisfying to numerous teleradiology adopters.

“Teleradiology can act as a relief valve when constantly filled work lists would have been shouldered by our clients’ in-house radiologists all alone,” Ebner explains. “We know groups are struggling to keep their night shifts filled, which increases burden at the local level. Radiologist recruiting has historically been more of a challenge in rural regions, but now we’re hearing it more and more from clients in urban and suburban areas.”

The research seems to bear this out. An analysis of Medicare data JACR published online in November, “Radiologist-Practice Separation: Recent Trends and Characteristics,” shows more than 41% of radiologists separated from at least one practice over a four-year period ending in 2018.

What’s more, the research reveals that the annual radiologist-practice separation rate increased by 38% over that time window—and the rate was consistent across different office sizes, locations, types and specialties.

In the study’s discussion section, lead study author Stefan Santavicca of the Georgia Institute of Technology, senior author Richard Duszak, MD, of Emory and co-authors comment:

The more radiologists move in a consolidating corporatized marketplace, the more likely they are to have an employee (rather than partner or owner) mentality—a shift that could potentially stifle radiologist innovation and entrepreneurship. Moreover, physician turnover is both expensive for practices and disruptive for their patients with manifold implications on operations and patient care.

With capacity comes responsibility

On the latter point, vRad’s Ebner poses two pertinent questions.

“Does radiologist burnout help explain 41% of rads moving on for different work environments? Maybe. Does their departure contribute to burnout for the remaining rads? Probably.”

With a teleradiology partnership readily available as a potential part of a flexible staffing strategy, neither of those negative outcomes is necessary, Ebner points out.

To learn more about how to adopt vRad teleradiology as part of a tailored staffing solution, contact vRad directly.