The Many Costs of Imaging Technologies

Gienna Shaw, July 27, 2010

Quick: When you think about defensive medicine, what comes to mind? For me, it’s imaging technologies. Try going to your primary care physician’s office on a Friday afternoon and telling her you have a slight pain in your abdomen. You’ll be holding your nose and swigging a barium cocktail in no time as technicians warm up the CT scan machine. You—or, more accurately, your health insurer—will spend a lot of money to find out whether your appendix is about to burst or if that burrito with extra jalapeño peppers you ate last night is to blame.

In the July issue of HealthLeaders Magazine, I wrote about the cost-quality conundrum of healthcare imaging technologies.

Advanced imaging technologies add to the high cost of healthcare; the latest model of any given machine is always more costly but not always more effective than the previous version; and access to technology definitely plays a role in overutilization and defensive medicine. It may not be the only problem, but it is part of the picture.

On the other hand—and this is a hard argument with which to quarrel—these technologies lead to earlier detection of conditions because they can see details right down to the molecular level. And early detection can save lives.

Meanwhile, like a snake eating its own tail, earlier detection leads to an increase in utilization and adds to healthcare costs.

Marty Khatib, director of imaging for Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael, CA, says early detection is the key to finding cures. “That's one of the cornerstones of effective and quality care, and that's what really has led to one of the causes behind this paradigm shift in technology in imaging," he says.

So what’s the solution? One way to fight the rising costs of technology is with, well, technology.

In addition to earlier detection, another transformation in the imaging field is an explosion in the amount of data available and the power of electronic medical records to record, store, transmit, share, and analyze it.

"There's so much emphasis on evidence-based best practice in the industry right now. Those gray areas are becoming much more clear," Khatib says. "Healthcare IT has allowed us to be much more quantitative in our approach and we're able to measure things much more accurately."

IT can help healthcare organizations identify and implement best practices while other technologies—such as teleradiology—might reduce costs and increase efficiency.

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