Employing a Differentiation Strategy

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imageAttracting 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. imageOISCC 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. imageResponse 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. Crucial Repositioning 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. Marketing Push Basner understood that it was not enough merely to install a high-field open MRI and wait for news of its availability gradually to filter out and spread on its own. Accordingly, she and others at South Fulton Medical Center and OISCC mapped out a plan to market the system and its capabilities. Anticipating skepticism among referrers regarding any claims they might make about the new magnet, the marketing team elected to adopt a show (rather than tell) communications strategy, which they initiated about a month before the new MRI became operational. “We created rack cards and poster boards for display in the physician lounge here in the hospital and in the lobby of the imaging center, and these often featured side-by-side comparison images to demonstrate the quality difference between high- and low-field open MRI,” Basner says. The team also crafted visually oriented informational pieces aimed at patients. “We provided these to physicians, who were then encouraged to pass them out to their patients,” Basner says. Another method of spawning awareness and sparking interest involved hosting a physician dinner. This was presented as an opportunity for interested physicians to ask questions about the open MRI’s capabilities. Hitachi representatives were on hand to field those inquiries and supply answers that hospital officials, at such an early stage in their experience, might not feel confident answering. Particularly effective have been the meetings that Hester conducts in referrers’ offices. At this juncture, every neurology practice in the Atlanta area has been visited at least once by Hester or an associate. Basner says, “In meeting one-on-one with the physicians, we sought to make sure they had all the information they needed, while also making sure they understood what a great piece of equipment this new MRI is.” Competitive Edge OISCC intends to further the attractiveness of its high-field open MRI by introducing new services. “Already, we’re offering breast MRI; we couldn’t do that before because our old open magnet was underpowered,” Sutton says. Bariatric imaging soon will join the lineup. “The tissue saturations now attainable when imaging obese patients will be very much appreciated by their referring physicians,” Hester says. “The resultant clearer image is something that they have not been able to obtain locally until now, because the only machines capable of accommodating bariatric patients lacked the necessary field strength to achieve good tissue saturation.” Sutton is confident that the service lines—new or old—made possible by the high-field open MRI will help OISCC gain new market share. She says, “This system, with its image quality and its patient comfort, has definitely given us a competitive edge.” Rich Smith is a contributing writer for ImagingBiz.com.