Innovators in Patient Experience: Arlene Sussman, MD

January 8, 2018
Whitney J. Palmer

Top People in Radiology: Innovators in Patient Experience winner Arlene Sussman, MD.

Yearly, Diagnostic Imaging honors radiologists for their contributions to a chosen area of the industry. This year, the accolade is bestowed upon radiologists who have taken pains to actively improve patient experience.

DI talked with Arlene Sussman, MD, medical director of vRad, about her work in making the imaging process more enjoyable for all patients.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"64982","attributes":{"alt":"Arlene Sussman, MD","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_8221426018752","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"8325","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 210px; width: 150px; border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: right;","title":"Arlene Sussman, MD","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

DI: From your experience and perspective, why is it important to concentrate on improving patient experience?

Sussman: Probably the most important aspect, in all my years of training in medicine, is ultimately serving the patient’s needs. If we can find a way to instantly improve their experience and meet their needs, then we should. One of my goals when I started in breast imaging and biopsy was to use my experience and knowledge and take it to the cloud to serve women who would otherwise not have access to fellowship trained sub-specialists in mammography. It’s been a plus for patient care.

DI: What would you point to as the highlight of your patient experience improvement work?

Sussman: I read mammograms for patients who might not get to have a doctor who is a sub-specialist or they might not have someone available to interpret images in a timely way. We get to be virtual doctors. We set up a monitor on a workstation, and the facility sets up a workstation themselves that allows us to live stream with the technologists and the patient. The experience for the patient is as if the sub-specialist is right in front of them. We share the images and findings of the mammogram on the screen, and we converse back and forth. They can ask me any question they wish. It’s a huge move forward for women nationwide who have little access to sub-specialists who are experts in the interpretation of mammography. It also provides a hands-on, interpersonal experience.

In my world, I find it to be an intense privilege to be allowed into women’s private lives and moments. It’s a privilege to help them through that. The greatest success is we get to quarterback their care. In the event they have a problem, we don’t want to leave them to their own devices to search and scramble to get help. I’m their hope. I find that it’s one of - if not the most important - thing I do.

DI: What’s the impact of the benefits that have come out of this work?

Sussman: The impact is almost immeasurable. It’s the ability for a patient to have access - free access - to sub-specialist to get all their questions answered. They don’t need to be rushed. There’s this idea out there that we should be maximizing volume and throughput and computer data entry - whatever is necessary to get the patient through the system. We have taken the opposite tactic and slowed down. We’ve taken the time to answer patient questions and meet them face-to-face. The impact there, again, I think, is that it allows us to grow and serve more people. They come back with their mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends.

DI: As a field, from your experience, what should - and can - radiology to do improve patient experience overall?

Sussman: The answer to the questions, from my humble perspective, is that radiologists need to become more invested in whatever experience they are working in. For example, if it’s a hospital, invest as part of the multidisciplinary approach to tackling disease. Think about a disease state and, then, consider everyone’s input - surgical, radiology, pathology. That multidisciplinary approach is only successful in the hospital setting for the patient and the physician if the radiologist can become more invested in the program. Attend conferences; be a member of a medical board. It all allows us to have more input and become more invested in teams. That makes us invaluable partners. Medicine needs to think this way. I think we’re going to approach patients by their diagnosis. If they have a diagnosis of breast cancer, then all the different components and different things that might touch the patient are going to come together. We will treat and care for them as one. Radiology must be more invested in ultimate diagnostic teams.

I’d like to say that when I first started in medicine, a lot of what we knew about health care was based on research done on 40-year-old white males. We weren’t doing a lot with women and children or other races or ethnicities. We are now. This was my contribution to the betterment of women of all races. It’s improved their care and moved things forward, and I think I’ve been a part of that process.

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