Turbulent Times Ahead for Independent Imaging Facilities

March 18, 2011

The uncertainty of today’s healthcare environment is just another hurdle in the daily operation of an imaging facility. How this and other challenges are handled will certainly determine the viability of your business.

The uncertainty of today’s healthcare environment is just another hurdle in the daily operation of an imaging facility. How this and other challenges are handled will certainly determine the viability of your business.

It has been said that he who finishes the game with the most toys wins the game. This sort of reasoning can be applied to the current state of our healthcare environment. We have seen the ups and downs of our market drive the growth of ASCs, IDTFs, and other independent practices. It seems like now the dynamics have reversed direction. Who is left when the trend reverses will be determined by their ability to adapt to the current and upcoming changes.

First, having a facility with a strong, customer-friendly atmosphere is the building block for the foundation of a healthy business. Returning guests will help you to survive the impact of the impending cuts to reimbursement. In order to cultivate this type of atmosphere, you will have to have absolute buy-in from all of your staff, since your customers are your ordering physicians and their staff first, your patients second, and their family and friends third.

It is imperative that your customers understand that they are the most important thing to you as you take care of their needs. Whether it is scheduling an exam, registering a patient, obtaining a history for an MRI, or just faxing an order to a consulting physician, your customers must be confident that you will address their needs the first time. A recent poll of a healthy facility demonstrated that for every patient that came in “because my doctor told me to come here,” three patients came because they were pleased with a prior visit. Without this type of loyalty, it will be difficult to survive the impending overhaul to healthcare.

So you think that your operation is efficient?

Have you evaluated your operations lately? How many days out are your patients scheduled, and why should they wait so long to see you? Are there opportunities to grow your volumes? What is happening in your competitive environment? What can you do to garner more referrals or patient loyalty?

These are all questions that are better answered sooner than later. We have already established that offering a better experience for your customers is the first step, but how you handle this step will directly affect their experience with your facility. For instance, diagnostic mammo should not be scheduled out more than one week - four days or less is preferable. Just ask yourself if you or your wife/mother would be happy to wait longer. Extending the appointments out over several weeks will tempt your customers to seek services elsewhere, in order to expedite their diagnosis.

Could you work more efficiently within your scheduled day? You need to operate at capacity in order to minimize your backlog. Having adequate staff with the aforementioned customer-friendly attitude will keep this schedule from becoming an experience of herding cattle. Your analysis may also lead you to discover that you would benefit from extending your service hours to accommodate more patients (think 30 MRIs instead of 17).

Finally, build a better mousetrap.

Do you offer the same thing as the next guy - or something less? You are already late if you have not asked yourself this question. If you are still scanning on a 0.5 T mobile scanner, and your competition is using a 1.5 T, or better yet a 3 T, the end may be near. Your customers should already expect that you offer the latest in technology. If not now, once the pinch of healthcare reform hits them in the pocket, they soon will start to shop for the most bang for their buck.

You may have the latest and greatest imaging equipment, but can’t seem to gain more referrals. Again, gain the knowledge of what you are competing against, and offer something more attractive. For example, we have employed an audio/video entertainment system for our MRI patients at several facilities. The impact of this was immediate. Sedation and claustrophobic cases went down, making the facilities more efficient. Imaging children became less of a production once we were able to allow them to watch SpongeBob.

Do you offer same day appointments? Why not? Do your reports get out in a reasonable time? You better believe that turn-around times on reports are already at blazing speeds. Four hours or less are not uncommon. Having someone who is willing to perform this service is becoming less and less difficult to find. Having a quick turnaround performed by a radiologist who is respected in your community is the norm now.

Although this is not the final impression that your business will send (that would be from your billing department but that’s for another discussion), we are finding it to be the most critical. Your radiologist can influence your facility in so many ways. Having a radiologist who is willing to offer face time to patients is one of the ways you can differentiate yourself from your competition. Imagine hearing on the day of your diagnostic mammogram that “I am Dr. So-and-so (your radiologist) and I have reviewed your images. There is nothing to be concerned about, and we will recommend a follow-up next year.” Priceless!

David Rushing, RT(R), MR, is operations manager for Medical Imaging Specialists. He has 19 years of experience specializing in radiology program development, implementation, and management. He has organized several mobile MRI programs for hospitals, served as hospital radiology department manager, and managed a full service free standing imaging center.