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COVID-19 has practices seeking lower risk, greater flexibility in radiologist staffing

When COVID-19 forced medical facilities to delay elective procedures across the country, imaging volume plummeted over 50% for many providers almost overnight. While volume has started to recover, the pandemic is forcing imaging service providers to aggressively rethink their business strategies, a key component of which is radiologist staffing.

A July 17 special report published in the journal Radiology described some of the “dramatic adjustments” practice leaders had to make to survive the pandemic, such as reducing salaries, shortening work schedules, requiring unpaid leave, reducing or eliminating bonuses, and dismissing pre-partner radiologists. Among the conclusions, in the future “… practices are likely to restructure operational policies and business risks to account for potential sudden volume decreases, as were experienced during the pandemic.”

 

Coming to terms with uncertainty

The trajectory of the pandemic remains unclear. No one knows when volume will stabilize and return to pre-COVID levels. In all likelihood, demand will fluctuate over the near and distant future. For example, some imaging providers typically expect surges of business in the summer months, but this year, that might not happen. Rising coronavirus infections are already triggering another pull-back of some non-essential procedures in states like Texas. The market is not going to behave like it’s ever behaved before.

So, how do you factor in all this uncertainty while contemplating the future of your practice? How do you deal with “potential sudden volume decreases” or for that matter volume spikes that are just as likely to occur in the coming weeks and months?

 

Smoothing out the ebbs and flows

Many imaging providers have already discovered that a partnership with a responsive, reliable teleradiology practice is an effective way to weather near-term uncertainty. The benefits of such a partnership extend beyond a major disruption like COVID-19, providing a more flexible response to common staffing challenges such as adding sites, filling requests for new procedures, and addressing radiologist retirement or attrition.

The ability to react effortlessly to market changes has always been a benefit to vRad’s clients.

When order volume spikes, exceeding the capacity of the radiologist staff, you can immediately reroute overflow to vRad without compromising turnaround times or quality. You turn the dial up or down as needed.

 

Preparing for the ramp up

Eventually, imaging orders will likely return to pre-COVID levels, and will grow from there along with our aging population. But it’s likely going to happen in increments, not all at once. So how do you make sure you have enough staff to handle small volume increases that may not warrant adding a full-time radiologist?

Say your staff includes three radiologists, and your business is growing. Your doctors have all the cases they can handle, and orders exceed their capacity by 20%. It doesn’t make sense to hire another full-time physician at that point, hoping volume will eventually grow to fill the increased capacity. Besides, in the COVID environment, that 20% may be a spike that will disappear next month.

You can assign the excess volume to vRad. If orders continue to trend upwards, you can turn up the dial as needed. vRad can handle your overflow, and even take on the capacity of one or more full-time-equivalent (FTE) radiologists. When you decide your practice can sustain another full-timer on site, you can take the time to have a thoughtful search for the new addition, and have a full worklist to provide them on day one.

 

Opportunities to grow

A vRad partnership gives practices much more flexibility to manage growth and take advantage of opportunities. For example, let's say your practice is receiving requests for vascular ultrasound, but you don't have anyone that reads them. Instead of turning away new business, you can forward those studies to vRad. vRad gives you around-the-clock access to expertise in virtually every subspecialty area.

Over time, the vascular ultrasound requests might grow to the point where you decide it is practical to invest in the subspecialty, and you can hire or train staff to do so. On the other hand, that referrer may decide to stop sending vascular ultrasounds altogether. Either way, you have delivered excellent service to your referrers and your community with no additional risk to your practice.

Leveraging vRad’s expertise allows practices to expand services and grow in ways they wouldn't normally be able to.

Author Nina Geatrakas, MD

Medical Director, vRad. Vascular Interventional Fellowship, University of California, Irvine; Musculoskeletal Radiology Fellowship, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York. Dr. Geatrakas sees her role as a clinical bridge between our radiologist practice, systems and operations, and clients. With a focus on patient well-being, she is committed to continuous vRad system growth, development and improvement. She takes pride in the excellent level of diagnostic insights we provide from the cloud, and the breadth of patients we help care for through partner facilities across the country.

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