Planning Your Own COVID-19 Recovery: 4 Steps to Imaging Rebound

May 7, 2020

Experts suggest designing a strategy to handle the backlog of imaging studies now.

Nationwide, orders for a wide variety of elective radiology studies have been sitting in the shadows for months. Patients, who have been far more concerned with avoiding or navigating through COVID-19, have gladly postponed imaging services that they otherwise would have been anxious to have done. And, maybe you’re one of the radiologists who’s been largely at a stand-still, wondering when you can put your skills back to work.

But, as more states start to discuss opening businesses, it’s clear that the time is coming when you’ll, once again, be able to read the screening mammogram or examine the knee X-ray. The question is, though, are you really ready to get back to working at full steam?

To put you on the right track, two industry experts from the United States and Ireland offered their insights in the Journal of the American College of Radiology on how you can step back into a faster pace of reading exams. It will require the coordination of not only your medical skills, but also the resources you have available.

“Radiology departments are likely to be severely restricted for a considerable length of time even after populations are permitted to move more freely again,” wrote George Taylor, M.D., from Boston Children’s Hospital and Aisling Snow, M.D., from Children’s Health Ireland. “Bringing radiology back to full function will require a balance of clinical assessment, ethical judgement, and logistical planning.”

Bringing yourself out of this time of imaging famine could be easier if you follow these four strategies:

1. Create a COVID-19 Recovery Task Force: This team should include radiologists, administrators, and technologists, and they should place emphasis on prioritizing care post-pandemic. The group should be invested in working together and building close relationships.

By sharing the ways they prefer to communicate with patients, as well as details about historical trends, including data about pre-existing waiting lists, volume and prioritization categories, the task force will be better prepared and positioned for sound planning.

2. Assess the System: Test the system to be sure it’s able to properly absorb the volume of delayed imaging studies and is capable of re-scheduling postponed appointments. Your levels of staffing, financial considerations, and availability of practice partners will factor heavily into whether your capacity with go back to normal, increase, or drop, Taylor and Snow explained.

“Financial factors will be critical in rebuilding services, and reduced funding will limit strategies, such as purchasing of additional equipment or hiring of additional staff,” they said.

They cautioned, however, that these factors will be unique to each practice.

3. Create a Recovery Process: Take an over-arching assessment of the backlog of imaging studies, as well as the resources you have available to process it all. You may need to categorize the studies that have been delayed, choosing to focus on the ones that are, indeed, most urgent. Conducting a full evaluation, the authors wrote, will ensure “equity in prioritization” for all your referring physicians and specialties.

To properly organize this list, you’ll need to take several things into consideration, they said. You will need to know whether the patient has known or suspected disease, as well as his or her insurance status and any details around pre-approvals. Even still, it might be helpful to set achievable goals for reading a certain amount of studies each week instead of diving directly into the full body of the backlog, they advised.

4. Communicate Clearly: Create a transparent communication system to share your plans, tailoring it to radiologists, management, referring physicians, and your patients. The more effectively you share information, the fewer questions you’ll have to answer or problems you’ll have to address.

Share your realistic timeline with your colleagues and staff. The more they know about your process and how long it might take, the better they will likely be able to handle the temporary increased stresses and pressures associated with the heavier workload.

Overall, Taylor and Snow said, radiology will best weather the COVID-19 storm – and come out stronger on the other side – if the specialty is proactive in addressing the change in imaging volumes and the growing collection of postponed studies.

“Planning our own recovery will ultimately protect patients and staff and enable us to respond accordingly as the uncertainty of the coming months unfolds,” they said.