Commoditization of Imaging: What to Do Now

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The responsibility for the phenomenon has been placed, at one time or another, on the shoulders of just about every stakeholder in the imaging field. Some say that payors are to blame; others see the growing prevalence of remote reading as the culprit. Has the expansion of IT made it possible, or is radiology merely catching up with other areas of medicine?

"Radiology is a particularly sensitive area of specialization. We don't control our own patients, we rely almost entirely on referrals, and we're completely dependent on technology. There's still an opportunity to reverse the trend toward commoditization, but if we continue with the same modus operandi, we’re headed on a downward spiral."

— Bruce Reiner, MD

Whatever your opinion of its origin, commoditization is clearly at work in imaging, according to Bruce Reiner, MD, director of research at the Maryland VA Health Care System in Baltimore. “There’s an increasing focus on cost and a decreasing focus on quality,” he says. “The government is the largest payor for health services, and they’re constantly wanting to lower costs. There’s an increasing focus on the bottom line.”

Reiner explains that imaging is particularly vulnerable to commoditization because it is expensive and heavy on technology. “Radiology is a particularly sensitive area of specialization,” he says. “We don’t control our own patients, we rely almost entirely on referrals, and we’re completely dependent on technology. There’s still an opportunity to reverse the trend toward commoditization, but if we continue with the same modus operandi, we’re headed on a downward spiral.”

Anatomy of a Commodity

In a 2009 article in the Journal of the American College of Radiology: JACR, Reiner and Siegel¹ outline what they see as the key contributors to imaging’s commoditization: the current focus on the bottom line, deepened by the globalization of imaging services, increased information exchange, and new technological developments. “Consumers of imaging services are focused almost exclusively on cost,” Reiner says, “instead of on the quality differentiators that are crucial to maintaining pricing power and rewarding the technology and service providers who can outperform the competition.”

Reiner mentions technology providers because he feels that the technology upon which radiology is so reliant is also subject to commoditization. “The same thing happens to technology. It always becomes commoditized,” he says. “PACS are looked upon now as boxes that are interchangeable from one vendor to the next. Vendors have not been terribly innovative in differentiating their products, based on data-driven objective differences between systems. There’s a dumbing-down effect: Instead of vendors investing in research and development and looking for ways to innovate, they’re looking at cost as well.”

The connection between technology commoditization and imaging commoditization, Reiner explains, lies in data mining. The statement that you can’t change what you can’t measure, often repeated in the imaging world, represents a call to action for a community thirsting for hard data upon which standards and benchmarks could be based. “Data mining is the future of all medicine, especially radiology, and the vendors have yet to get it right,” Reiner says. “They have all this technology, but they’re way behind the eight ball in terms of developing tools and resources to support longitudinal data-mining efforts. While the societies have a responsibility as well, I think the vendors need to develop the technology to support them.”

Reiner says that for this and many other reasons, the imaging field has not yet truly prioritized quality, and it is therefore subjecting itself to a marketplace where cost remains the primary differentiator. “You need to be able to discriminate based on clinical outcomes—how effective one service provider is at optimizing those, compared with another. Without those data, those standards, and the supporting technology, it gets boiled down to tension on economics and cost.”

Industry Commitment

Reiner and Siegel note that “a number of economic and political events have added urgency to the data-driven, quality-oriented transformation of medical imaging practice.”¹ This statement is truer than ever before following the advent of health-care reform, with its emphasis on quality initiatives and comparative-effectiveness research. As they note, however, “Although these events provide sufficient