Differentiate now or stagnate soon, warns radiology business guru

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 - Curtis Kaufman-Pickelle
Curtis Kaufman-Pickelle

Apple used to push the world to “think different.” Today, the profession of radiology is being driven to think differentiation. And the impetus is issuing not from a single corporation, but rather from myriad market forces—from commoditization to consolidation to, perhaps most pressingly, ever-narrowing profit margins.

How are individual radiology practices to adapt and thrive in such an increasingly harsh business environment, especially when they had been seen as part of a unique—some would have even said “boutique”—medical specialty?

Curtis Kauffman-Pickelle, founding publisher of Radiology Business Journal, imagingBiz.com and Medical Imaging Review, and a 30-plus-year veteran of the business of radiology, took up that question this past spring in a vRad webinar titled “Radiology at a Crossroads.”

Given the pace of maturation happening within the radiology market space, “it is incumbent upon us to understand that we will increasingly be required to differentiate ourselves,” said Kauffman-Pickelle. “That means paying much closer attention to the principles of marketing and creating a value proposition that will set your [practice] apart from your competitors—the very ones who will most certainly be testing your ability to stay the course.”

Additionally, the same kinds of shakeouts and consolidations that have rocked other industries will, he said, “create new and sometimes strange bedfellows” throughout healthcare and within radiology.

Kauffman-Pickelle said practices successfully negotiating the stiff headwinds presently roiling the marketplace will simultaneously have to navigate increased regulatory burdens. “The regulators and all the payors know that there is defensive medicine. They know that easily 30 percent of today’s medical imaging could be characterized as unnecessary,” he said. “So we will see the ability of those in radiology to use data points to talk about appropriateness as one of the ways that you can differentiate yourself.”

There’s no data like rad data

As daunting as radiology’s present and future challenges seem, the profession may be nicely positioned to take advantage of some characteristics innate to many (if not most) of its practitioners—thanks precisely to the aforementioned data points.

Radiology has looked to analytics and informatics for probably longer than any other medical specialty, Kauffman-Pickelle pointed out. He said radiologists must now place that expertise front and center on their menu of core competencies.

“The fact is that we [in radiology] can leverage big data and develop it into actionable intelligence unlike any other specialty can,” he said, adding that, to do so, practices need to develop proprietary metrics and use them to rightly position the profession as “the protector of the patient. We can be at the forefront of using metrics to develop outcomes-based reports and utilization review. Rather than just being seen as a vendor or a group offering episodic benefits, we can be key and integral to the mission of the hospital or health system.”

Here, Kauffman-Pickelle stressed the criticality of jettisoning any lingering bureaucratic or institutional habits in order to innovate real upgrades in care delivery.

“We can take these process improvements and look to being a different kind of partner with the health system executive who is looking for solutions and for partners invested in helping their system thrive,” he said.

Partners in patient experience

The new era of consumer-driven healthcare is not something to come, but a reality right now, said Kauffman-Pickelle, noting that most hospitals and integrated delivery networks have a VP or at least director-level position dedicated to improving patient experience. The title of chief patient experience officer, CPEO, is not the norm now, but may soon be common, he suggested.

Radiology players make themselves essential to the patient-experience movement by, for starters, building loyalty in referral sources. A good place to begin is by showing referrers how radiology’s data and analytics can help them deliver on the patient-experience proposition, said Kauffman-Pickelle.

Every stakeholder working within, or in any way affected by, radiology needs to view the profession as a topnotch provider of service, he said. “And by the customer, I mean the referring physician, the referring physician’s office staff, the hospital, the payers—and the patients and the caregivers who are all part of the patient’s extended family,”