One hard lesson learned during the pandemic is that healthcare providers must be agile—ready to respond quickly and decisively when inevitable crises strike. When it comes to managing radiology staff in particular, some unique challenges and opportunities surfaced in the wake of COVID-19.
The pandemic has altered the radiologist staffing landscape
As of late 2019, a continued, resurgent demand for radiologists was expected through 2025. Merritt Hawkins projected growth for radiology services, based on an aging population and a strong economy allowing more elective surgeries. They also predicted that the number of radiologists reaching retirement age combined with fewer in residency would constrict the supply of available radiologists to meet the growing demand. (Source: Merritt Hawkins, 2019 Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives.)
Then in March the reality of COVID-19 hit hard. Imaging demand dropped sharply—in some cases as much as 80%.
By October 2020, radiology administrators and managers responding to the Medical Imaging Confidence Index survey noted that imaging volumes had largely bounced back but that many patients are still reluctant to return to hospitals and imaging centers. "COVID has brought severe uncertainty regarding cash flow and capital allocations. 2021 will bring a new direction and new strategy for growth." (Source: MarkeTech Group, in Auntminnie.com, Oct 16, 2020)
Going forward, practices are wise to include contingencies in their plans that allow them to respond effectively when the next crisis hits. This requires changing how operational costs and business risks are managed, including the hiring and management of the radiologist team.
Successful medical practices will introduce a greater balance of variable costs into business plans, providing needed flexibility for responding to volume changes, making it easier to seize upside opportunities while reducing the potential pain of a decline in demand.
The future of private radiology practices will be impacted by the pandemic in that practices are likely to restructure operational policies and business risks to account for potential sudden volume decreases, as were experienced during the pandemic.
RSNA COVID-19 Task Force, July 2020The Short- and Long-Term Financial Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Private Radiology Practices.
Telemedicine skyrockets in answer to COVID-19
Telemedicine grew at a notable 20% annual rate through the 20-teens, as healthcare providers sought to improve efficiency of care delivery, and patients embraced the convenience of online access to care. In 2020, the coronavirus massively accelerated the use of telehealth. The CDC reported a 154% jump in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 vs. the same week in 2019.
In October, the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition released survey results from the summer, when the group worked with the American Medical Association, state medical societies and other organizations to survey close to 1,600 doctors and other clinicians. Among the project’s key findings:
- More than 80% of medical professionals say telehealth has improved the timeliness of care for their patients.
- 68% are motivated to increase telehealth use in their practices.
- 60% believe telehealth has improved their patients’ health.
- 55% say telehealth has improved their job satisfaction.
Hospital administrators rethink infection control
The increased use of remote connections is not limited to interactions between patients and caregivers. In the interest of ensuring a safe workplace for all hospital staff while minimizing patient risk, COVID-19 has forced hospital administrators to rethink infection control, and accelerate telemedicine action plans. For management, that means establishing processes that reduce unnecessary physical contact between physicians, administrators and staff, as well as patients.
This may include policies such as establishing remote workstations where radiologists can effectively conduct diagnostic studies and communicate with ordering physicians, distanced from the physical space occupied by patients and essential care personnel. Reducing the number of people on site at facilities reduces the risk of exposure to coronavirus – or whatever comes next.
Radiologists seek personal safety and burnout relief
As one of the first medical specialties to utilize telemedicine, radiologists are very familiar with the practice of reading remotely and immediately recognized the opportunity to reduce their own COVID-19 exposure risk. In April of 2020, just a few weeks after a national state of emergency was declared in the U.S., teleradiologist job inquires at vRad jumped over 2.5 times the prior 6-month average and remained near those levels through the summer.
Those responsible for hiring and retaining radiologists will need to take this fundamental shift into consideration as they align the benefits of working for their practice or hospitals with the expectations of radiologists in the post-COVID era.
Radiologists’ caseloads are piling higher, with dire staffing consequences
In the coming years imaging study demand will grow faster than educational institutions will produce new radiologists to help shoulder the load. Simply put, each radiologist faces an expanding caseload.
The aging U.S. population will contribute to increasing consumption of healthcare resources, including medical imaging. Evidence-based medicine is becoming more entrenched, fueling demand for cross-sectional MRI and CT imaging. The rapid development of interventional therapies for chronic illnesses is also adding to the demand for radiologists.
Unfortunately, the number of available radiologists has stagnated in recent years, and projections indicate nominal improvement, or potential worsening, in the future.
In addition to fewer people pursuing the profession in medical school, the population of radiologists is aging along with the general population. Of 20,970 in active patient care, 82% of radiologists are age 45 and over, while 53% are age 55 and over.
The real cost of radiologists’ growing workloads
A limited supply of radiologists means individual candidates can be more selective about how they choose to practice—in a traditional setting, an academic group, as locum tenens, or with a teleradiology group—and where they choose to practice. Healthcare providers competing for talent from a limited pool will need to differentiate themselves. Each organization must seek to understand what motivates radiologists–including factors beyond compensation like burnout–and demonstrate how they’ve addressed common concerns and created an environment where the candidates can thrive within their unique practice.
For additional hiring best practices, check out this blog from vRad Physician Recruiter, Adam Jones, 7 interview questions for effective radiologist recruiting and hiring.