RSNA: Better communication with patients = good marketing

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CHICAGO--In an era when imaging services face increasing scrutiny, it’s important to raise public awareness of the importance of radiology while also keeping patients satisfied, according to a presentation on Nov. 29 at the 97th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

One issue is that the general public doesn’t even know radiologists exist, said Mary C. Mahoney, MD, director of breast imaging at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Those who are aware of radiologists probably don't know enough about the actual work a radiologist does.

“They often think it’s their primary care physicians who interpret the studies,” said Mahoney. “I think if I had a nickel for every time a patient told me that the breast surgeon read their mammogram, I would be a very rich woman right now.”

Emphasizing that point, co-speaker Michael Brant-Zawadzki, MD, of the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., pointed to headlines in recent mainstream media articles criticizing the cost of imaging services.

“As radiologists, we did not do a good sales job for the assets we bring to the table,” said Brant-Zawadzki.

Improving patient satisfaction with radiologic services could go a long way toward making imaging valuable in the eyes of the general public, and Mahoney said the industry is starting to understand this, as evidenced by a survey conducted by Health Imaging showing the number one radiology business concern for 2011 was improving customer satisfaction.

Communication can take radiologists from the back room to the front office of patient-centered care and make them lynchpins of clinical medicine, said Brant-Zawadzki. He shared the story of a woman who was waiting for CT scan results for days simply because the referring physician didn’t relay the interpretation even though it was available hours after the scan. Contact between radiologists and patients can avoid these unfortunate incidents.

Brant-Zawadzki said radiology facilities should draft a letter to give to patients following a procedure saying when the interpretation will be complete and that they can contact the department directly if they have any questions. As patient portals to access images become more common, radiologists will likely start to receive more calls from patients and departments should start getting used to this practice.

In fact, patients are already starting to expect contact with radiologists. A survey of patients found that 94 percent felt entitled to an explanation from a radiologist, and surveys of radiologists and referring physicians showed that this was okay so long as the results were normal. Only 57 percent of referring physicians felt comfortable with radiologists relaying abnormal results to patients and a minority of both referring physicians and radiologists were okay with a radiologist relaying a severely abnormal test result.

Technology such as voice dictation has greatly reduced interpretation time, and radiologists can leverage this to improve patient satisfaction. Eighty-five percent of reports are turned around in less than five minutes at Hoag Neurosciences Institute, according to Brant-Zawadzki. “You could literally hand the signed report to the patient walking out of the department,” he said.

Another aspect of customer relations is service recovery when there is a problem. Brant-Zawadzki said when there is a complaint, departments should own it, fix the problem and offer a goodwill gift like movie tickets or a gift card.

“Let’s hope that these approaches will help us in the coming [accountable care organization] era because as consumerism meets integrated care we may run into some problems,” said Brant-Zawadzki.