How Your Patients Really See You

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imageI don’t think too many radiologists would question that their profession is currently at risk, or that raising their specialty’s profile among patients could be what turns the tide for imaging in an increasingly consumer-driven health care marketplace. But today I was shocked to learn how patients currently perceive radiology. (You might want to have your smelling salts handy as you read on.)

As moderator Mary Mahoney, MD, noted as this afternoon’s session on patient-centered radiology began, “Our medical system has become confusing and, in some ways, very difficult for patients to navigate. They often think the radiologist is the technologist who performed their study. In many cases, they think their primary care physician is the one interpreting the studies they’ve ordered.”

What else do patients think? Harvey Neiman, MD, was on hand to share the results of the ACR’s “Face of Radiology” campaign, an experimental initiative aimed at assessing what patients think of the profession and whether it’s possible to change their perception through marketing. Audience members were quite literally gasping in shock as he played sound clips from ACR-run patient focus groups.

In response to the question, “What do radiologists do?” a participant answered, “They sedate the patient for surgery.” Another said, “The radiologist is not the doctor of choice. The radiologist is the one who says, ‘Look what I found,’ and then the specialist says, ‘Here’s what we should do.’” A third participant added, “I don’t think they have to be college-educated. They’re technicians.” And finally, a fourth person said, “He’s not a doctor. He’s like a mechanic bringing in your car.”

Yikes.

All that being said, on a more positive note, a recent Stanford survey found that only 41% of patients would prefer to hear their imaging results from their referring physicians instead of their radiologists, said Stanford radiology department head Gary Glazer, MD. And speed matters to them – if they could have their reports in two or three hours, 95% would be highly satisfied. “I don’t think any other group of physicians might be able to achieve this,” Glazer said.

Stanford’s experimental patient-centered imaging center, which was redesigned from scratch (more on that in the next entry) and aims for increased radiologist-patient interaction, has been a “huge financial success,” according to Glazer, performing 19% more scans than projected in a year where hospital volmes were flat for non-imaging services. One patient actually commented, “I only want to have my scans done at the Palo Alto center.”

So there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that patients don’t seem to understand who radiologists are or what they do. The good news is that imaging centers can change that by adjusting their operations to be more patient-centric—and can capture more revenue by doing so. “Creating a center like this is good financial success and good in terms of patient satisfaction,” Glazer said.

And there’s a bit of good news from Neiman as well: in the ACR’s analysis of the effectiveness of its “Face of Radiology” campaign, the group found that marketing to patients about radiologists’ education and role was “sticky”—the message stayed in their minds for months, especially when transmitted through news and talk radio. “The good news is, perception is changeable,” Neiman concluded.