Attracting referrals is more crucial than ever for imaging-center operators who hope to see their facilities survive, and even thrive, in these difficult times. The task of maintaining or increasing market share, however, is complicated by aggressive competitors, each of which wants to be recognized by the greatest possible number of physicians and patients as the go-to place for diagnostic work-ups.
It is precisely so in Atlanta, Georgia, where Outpatient Imaging & Specialty Care at Camp Creek (OISCC)—an affiliate of the 338-bed South Fulton Medical Center in East Point—has made referral growth a priority. Freestanding OISCC distinguishes itself in its market by offering the patient community high-quality MRI services on a patient-friendly, high-field open system. Although several OISCC competitors also offer open MRI services, OISCC’s system is 1.2T—nearly double the field strength of the nearest rival’s open-bore machine.
OISCC acquired an open-bore Oasis MRI system from Hitachi Medical Systems America, Inc, Twinsburg, Ohio, in January 2010. The system boasts a bore-less design architecture and a span sufficient to accommodate patients whose weight would typically be about 500 pounds (227 kg)—although in terms of weight alone, without considering girth, the chamber can support 660 pounds (299 kg). The physical design of the scanner is such that claustrophobic patients can feel comfortable during the entire exam process. Further, patients have an easy time of getting onto the cradle-style table, which lowers to within a foot of the floor (this feature also greatly helps the technologists to position patients properly for imaging).
“The image quality is certainly comparable to that of a conventional, closed, 1.5T MRI system,” Genia Sutton, director of the imaging center, explains.
Response among referrers was positive from the beginning, according to Sutton. “We quickly started seeing new referrals from offices that would never before have sent patients to an open magnet,” she says, noting that those expressing the keenest interest are neurologists and orthopedic surgeons. Joan Hester, director of physician sales for South Fulton Medical Center, explains why: “Open MRIs, until this point, were unable to capture the specific types of images neurologists and certain other types of specialists required. Now that they have this option, they’re taking advantage of it,” she says.
Referrals are coming to OISCC from as far afield as Alabama and South Carolina, even though neither the imaging center nor the medical center engage in referrer outreach anywhere outside Georgia. Letitia Basner, South Fulton Medical Center’s director of marketing, theorizes that word is spread to those neighboring states by Hitachi representatives who mention the OISCC success story wherever they travel; in addition, OISCC often turns up at or near the top of results for patients’ Internet searches for high-field, open-bore MRI services. “Patients coming from out of state are comparatively few in number, but it still says a lot that someone is willing to drive four or five hours (or longer) to get to us,” she says.
At first blush, it would not have seemed necessary for OISCC to invest in high-field open MRI technology in order to compete effectively for business in and around Atlanta: The facility was outfitted with state-of-the-art, all-digital modalities when it opened approximately three years ago.
These include 16-slice CT, ultrasound, vascular-echo ultrasound, digital mammography, bone densitometry, radiography, and a recently added C-arm unit for electron spectroscopic imaging and MRI-guided joint injections. There are 14 technologists who operate this equipment, and the resulting studies are read by a full-time, on-site radiologist.
A closer look, however, made clear to the center that it urgently required high-strength, open-bore MRI in order to overcome a shortcoming of its MRI strategy. “For a time, we did have an open MRI, but it was only a 0.35T system,” Sutton says. “The problem was that it could not generate images of sufficient diagnostic quality to satisfy the needs of neurologists, orthopedic surgeons, and other specialists whose referrals we sought, but could not attract in any significant numbers.” Bringing aboard the Oasis system would, decision makers reasoned, reposition OISCC as an undisputed center of technological excellence and patient-focused care.