Be Aggressive to Boost Your Imaging Referrals

October 27, 2011

If you’ve seen fewer and fewer physicians referring patients to your center for imaging services over the past five years, you’re not alone. The decline is a nationwide trend, and many industry consultants believe that to fortify your bottom line, you must go on the offensive.

If you’ve seen fewer and fewer physicians referring patients to your center for imaging services over the past five years, you’re not alone. The decline is a nationwide trend, and many industry consultants believe that to fortify your bottom line, you must go on the offensive.

Referrals are falling for all services – MRIs, CTs, and X-rays. The reasons are many, but one factor is consistent: money.

There are three main ways finances impact referrals, according to Deborah MacFarlane, West Coast service manager for Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based Management Services Network. Specialty providers, such as orthopedists, frequently choose to keep imaging – and the reimbursement – in-house by purchasing their own equipment. Radiology benefit management companies, through cost-control efforts, drive down imaging utilization. And, patients forgo imaging services because their insurance co-pay or deductible is too high.

“Imaging centers are now fighting for a much smaller pool of patients,” MacFarlane said. “We’ve gone from growth and educating referring physicians about how to better use imaging services and imaging centers to if you’re going to get more volume, you must take it from another imaging center.”

This is the battle currently facing Genesis Diagnostic Center in Lansing, Mich. Except, according to office manager Matt Barnum, the practice needs to woo back clients siphoned away by area hospitals. Recently, two nearby hospitals enacted contracts with the private practice offices that once sent patients to Genesis for imaging services.

“Based on these agreements, practices that once referred to us are receiving benefits or some type of stipend for sending patients to the hospitals for imaging scans instead,” Barnum said. “It’s perfectly legal in Michigan, but it’s a tough thing for a small practice like Genesis to compete with.”

To fight back, Barnum said he’s made in-person visits to the private practices to remind referring providers that Genesis can accommodate walk-in, same-day scans, has a rapid, 24-hour turnaround time, and charges patients lower fees than hospitals for the same scan. In fact, across the board, patients often pay three to four times as much for a scan in the hospital as they would in the center.

MacFarlane agreed offering services “on demand” could be attractive to both doctor and patient. Physicians could appreciate sending patients – who have already taken time off work for a healthcare appointment – to an imaging center that can fulfill a same-day service need. In addition, consider expanding the fringes of your service area to gather more patients. The hyper-local focus is no longer sustainable, she said.

She also suggested exploring an independent practice association (IPA) contract as a way to bring more patients into your practice. Partnering with other practices could help grow your share of the marketplace.

“Entering into a capitated relationship or an IPA contract could be the most impactful step in terms of increasing your patient volume,” she said.

Don’t forget electronic strategies, said Jon Mertz, vice president with Corepoint Health, which provides system integration, consulting and training courses. Create a fluid communication path between your center and the physician’s office. For example, accept orders electronically and send patient reports back the same way.

“If you make it easier for referring physicians to get information and reduce turnaround time for getting scan results, you’re imaging center is more attractive,” Mertz said. “If you can slice turnaround to a few minutes instead of a few hours, that’s a big thing.”
Potential patients could also appreciate and benefit from electronic communications, he said.

Giving them the option to schedule appointments online could make your center a convenient choice.

There is one strategy you should avoid, however, MacFarlane said. Don’t make the mistake of taking on a significant volume of low-rate reimbursement services just to pull in more money. These scans will likely displace your higher paying ones.

“This tactic sounds good in theory, but you can’t manage it with your existing services,” she said. “Overtime, you’ll start to see your bottom line dwindle.”