Pandemic Imaging: What Do Patients Want?

November 5, 2020
Whitney J. Palmer

Recognizing what matters to patients during the COVID-19 outbreak can help practices and hospitals meet patient needs and improve outcomes.

When it comes to elective imaging during the pandemic, patients have clear ideas about what they feel is most important – and radiology practices should consider those opinions when creating new strategies to re-capture that imaging volume, industry experts said.

Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, the number of reported COVID-19 cases or hospitalization rates did not top the list of what factored in when a patient was asked to reveal what counts most in their decision to follow through with elective imaging studies. Instead, patients said they were more concerned about the ins-and-outs of their specific appointment, opening up opportunities for imaging centers to create more inviting environments, a team from Columbia University Irving Medical Center said.

“It is critical for radiology practices to deliver a safe imaging experience so that patients feel reassured in getting their examination when referring clinicians determine that the benefits outweigh the risks,” said the team led by Tony T. Wong, M.D., a diagnostic and interventional musculoskeletal radiologist.

The team published their findings in the Nov. 4 Journal of the American College of Radiology.

According to the results of a 22-question telephone survey conducted between June 13, 2020, and July 9, 2020, and completed by 99 patients who had their MRI scans postponed in New York-based hospitals from March 23, 2020, to April 24, 2020, patients are most concerned about six things when they consider their visit to an imaging center:

  • Staff friendliness
  • Mask use by staff
  • Social distancing measures throughout the imaging center
  • Short wait times
  • Patient temperature checks and health screenings
  • Same-day clinic and imaging appointments

Across the board, patients indicated all of these factors were fairly-to-extremely important: friendliness (95 percent), mask use (94 percent), social distancing (93 percent), wait times (83 percent), temperature checks (83 percent), and same-day appointments (71 percent).

At the time of the survey, even though quarantine measures were still largely in place, most patients – 68 percent – said they felt it was fairly or extremely safe to go in for an imaging exam, and many saw no safety difference between getting a scan done at the hospital or an outpatient clinic. Guidance offered by their provider would play a significant role with 89 percent saying they would follow their referring physician’s directions on where to go for a scan.

Patients’ willingness to listen to their doctors could bode well for imaging centers that are looking to rebuild their volume levels, the team said.

“Since patients are likely to listen to their referring clinician when it comes to where they go for their imaging,” they said, “there is an opportunity for radiology practices to coordinate with clinicians to deliver a streamlined and unified message that optimizes operations.”

To fulfill patients’ desires for maximized safety, Wong’s team suggested imaging centers designate patient-only entryways, spread out waiting room chairs, use physical partitions, or having patients wait in their cars until their appointment time. They can also provide paperwork at the time of scheduling to streamline appointments. Coordination between referring providers and imaging centers can also be beneficial, they said. Among the patients surveyed, 71 percent of patients surveyed indicated they try to limit their trips outside the home, so efforts to provide same-day appointments as much as possible would likely be viewed positively.

Giving patients an opportunity to ask questions about their scans can also help increase their comfort level, the team said, suggesting that office staff give patients the chance to express any concerns during scheduling phone calls.

But, above all, the team advised, imaging centers looking to bolster their volumes should concentrate on the No. 1-reported priority – the pleasantness demonstrated by staff.

“It is important to reinforce the need for overall staff friendliness, a critical factor for patient care and one which continues to be valued more highly than all safety measures, even during this time of global health emergency,” they said.

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