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Getting Imaging into Focus

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, December 28, 2011
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This article appears in the December 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Call the world of healthcare imaging a blur.

In a fast-paced environment, healthcare systems are buying freestanding imaging centers and are relying on provider groups for around-the-clock coverage and teleradiology programs for a competitive edge.

Hospitals, no matter the size, also are pressed to innovate their clinical approaches to reduce extravagant and unnecessary imaging costs and to improve patient outcomes.

Diagnostic imaging has remained one of the fastest-growing Medicare costs, rising from $6.5 billion to $11.7 billion between 2000 and 2009, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Still, for physician groups and owners of freestanding imaging centers, a decline in reimbursements puts pressure on hospital systems but also gives them an opportunity to expand their imaging programs, according to John Hart, administrative director for radiology at the 880-licensed-bed St. Joseph’s Healthcare System in Paterson, NJ.

“With declining reimbursements hitting the freestanding imaging centers and doctors’ offices hardest, there has been a big opportunity for hospitals to either acquire or joint-venture with physicians in order to keep these centers profitable and lower overall imaging costs,” Hart says. St. Joseph’s is exploring partnering opportunities “with physicians when the right opportunities present themselves,” he says.

The expansion of radiology has had significant impact on healthcare, with 70 million computed tomography scans performed in the United States, resulting in what radiologists point to as more accurate assessments of patient health, more appropriate treatment, and better outcomes.But there are other concerns as well, such as too much imaging being used, which can harm patients and add unnecessary cost to healthcare.

Success key No. 1: Building freestanding imaging centers
In California, Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, a 325-licensed-bed health system with hospitals in San Clemente and Laguna Hills, CA, purchased an imaging center from a physician group last year with two key reasons in mind: to increase imaging capability for its patients, and to increase patient traffic for radiological services in the heavily competitive Orange County region, says CEO Steve Geidt. The imaging center is located near the San Clemente campus. There’s a radiology program at the freestanding center and in the hospital, he says.

“It is a little schizophrenic,” Geidt says. “We are sort of competing with ourselves. If not ourselves, though, we are competing with someone else. That’s okay. We feel it makes sense and that’s the direction that the market is going. Either we respond to the market or we watch the train leave the station.”

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