Patient Satisfaction With Imaging Is Increasingly Critical to Referrers

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Curtis Kauffman-PickelleAs health care becomes increasingly consumer driven, patients are expecting higher levels of service and satisfaction from their providers, including providers of medical imaging. Elliot Silverman, director of imaging services at Palmetto General Hospital (Hialeah, Florida), notes that many patients have only a vague notion of what’s in store when they go in for an imaging study. Positive or neutral experiences are quickly forgotten, but negative experiences can be remembered for a long time; referring physicians hear about them (and, no doubt, strive to avoid a negative patient experience in the future). Dissatisfaction with the traditional closed MRI system is not uncommon, but when Silverman checked the competition near Palmetto General Hospital, he noticed a distinct lack of high-field, open MRI systems, despite the presence of 13 imaging centers within a five-mile radius. The comprehensive competitive analysis performed by Silverman and his colleagues resulted in the decision to add the Oasis 1.2T boreless MRI system from Hitachi Medical Systems America, Inc, to the hospital’s array of modalities. Design Matters Silverman explains that the Oasis design eliminates the concerns faced by the claustrophobic and/or obese; accommodating these patients comfortably can translate into demonstrable revenue gains for radiology departments. “The Oasis (which we bought in 2010), in particular, allows imaging of patients weighing up to 660 pounds,” Silverman says. “It’s open on both sides of the unit, so you don’t have that claustrophobic effect, which can create a lot of fear that forces cancellation of the procedure. When physicians do not get the exams they are looking for, it affects a lot of different service channels.” The boreless Oasis design is complemented by an 82-cm (32-inch) table that puts the relevant anatomy at the isocenter; this feature, along with proprietary software, makes possible the acquisition of high-quality images not traditionally associated with open-architecture MRI systems. Technologists at Palmetto General Hospital also appreciate the three-axis motorized table movement, which provides added convenience in positioning patients. The system’s design allows patients an unobstructed view outside the scanner for virtually every exam. Technologists have access to the patient from anywhere around the magnet, and the wide table accommodates even the largest patients. The boreless design can also reduce the need for sedation and anesthesia, which helps to make scheduling more predictable and workflow more efficient. Comfort and Convenience Education prior to the exam is key, regardless of the MRI design, Silverman stresses. These days, Silverman and his dedicated staff members make sure that all patients knows exactly what will happen during the exam. “If you educate patients thoroughly, they’re not as claustrophobic as one may think,” he notes. “We have headsets with music and family members can be in the room; that allows patients to take their minds off the procedure.” It all adds up because dissatisfied patients talk to each other. Beyond the big-picture advantages of the open MRI, it’s often the easily correctable details that make a huge difference in terms of patient satisfaction, Silverman says. One example he offers is making patients wait without explanation; when patients understand the reason for a delay, they are likely to be calmer and more understanding. “Some imaging groups don’t offer coffee or a clean environment,” he notes, “or the registration process may be too lengthy. Remember, this is a service industry patients don’t want to be in—unlike a hotel, where they may look forward to the experience.” Spreading the Word Attracting patient referrals is critical for imaging providers working to grow patient volumes. Palmetto General Hospital’s executives believe that its open MRI is a competitive advantage, and they have worked to spread the word (outside typical consumer channels). “We don’t do it in publications, but instead, by visiting physicians,” Silverman says. “We set up lunches with physician groups and create literature from the hospital.” Among patients, the distinctions between MRI systems’ types and features are not likely to be priorities. Instead, patients want on-time appointments and quick turnaround for results. For radiology providers, these elements translate into increased referrals. Return on investment is inevitably realized through high customer satisfaction—whether those customers are referring physicians or patients. “An open MRI is going to make the referring physician’s job a lot easier,” Silverman says. “Physicians like that the patient’s comfort level is secure, under the best technology you can buy. It’s a win–win for the patient and the physician.” Looking Ahead As a 40-year radiology veteran, Silverman believes that comfort has occasionally been neglected in the march toward new and better modalities, but he thinks that increased patient influence might change that. In the case of MRI, too often, the discomfort starts at the table. “Not all manufacturers have a comfortable table for the patients,” he says. “Patients get uncomfortable and they may not want to withstand the full test time. Usually, MRI exams will go on for about an hour, and if you’re not comfortable on that table, you’re not going to want to withstand the rest of the imaging.” Of course, MRI studies, when done properly, can lead patients to return to the same provider for other procedures. Along with CT, MRI is usually the most profitable modality, and patient satisfaction should not be overlooked, Silverman says. “Ultimately, the public will decide,” he observes. “This could be the wave of the future. Technology changes every year, and those who have superior technology are going to benefit from more volume, better customer service, and more referrals.” Greg Thompson is a contributing writer for ImagingBiz.com.