The Ones and Zeros of Radiology

Radiologists employ data analytics to improve workflow and enhance patient care.

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January 2015

Many radiologists use technology to make their department or practice more efficient. Analytics software is chief among these tools, allowing radiologists to crunch numbers themselves without requiring the expertise of outside analysts.

Currently, analytics are often used to streamline the operational, or business, side of imaging. However, experts predict a time in the near future when radiologists will be able to use practice-level data to improve the clinical aspect of radiology as well.

Down to Business

Collecting and analyzing data is a proven way to bolster a practice's bottom line. Katherine P. Andriole, PhD, associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and director of imaging informatics at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston, says that while many who work in the field of radiology don't like to think of health care as a business, she still thinks that radiologists should look to the business sector for examples of how to cut down on inefficiencies and improve quality. "If you look at other businesses," says Andriole, "they use tools to see if they're meeting their customers' needs and if they're using their resources efficiently. Health care can do the same thing to improve efficiency and ensure safety."

 

"[Making use of data analytics] will allow us to provide better, safer, and more appropriate care for our patients, accelerating our transition to tomorrow's Imaging 3.0." - Eliot L. Siegel, MD, FACR

 

A major upside to investing in analytics software, according to Andriole, is that radiologists can often use it to interpret data themselves without taking on the additional expense of hiring outside analysts. "You need some IT expertise to collect and normalize the data input from multiple different systems (e.g., the billing system, the PACS, etc.)," she says. "But then theidea is that, once it's set up, you don't need a computer scientist or a database analyst to use the tool to visualize the trends in the data." Andriole's department has used business data collected from disparate systems to achieve various goals, including attestation to meaningful use stage 1. Access ACR's meaningful use resources at http://bit.ly/ACRMeaningfulUse.

And since many of the tools are relatively inexpensive, Andriole notes that a radiologist doesn't necessarily need to be in a leadership position to advocate for analytics technology to be installed in a department or practice. "We had a junior faculty member at BWH who wanted our department to start taking a closer look at radiation dose," says Andriole, "and convinced the departmental leaders to start using data mining and analytics to accomplish this." The most effective leaders, she concludes, will listen to radiologists on the front line.

Drilling Down

Although examining data captured from systems within the radiology department can help imaging specialists improve their financial status, the balance sheet is not the only potential beneficiary of imaging analytics. Eliot L. Siegel, MD, FACR, professor of diagnostic imaging at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of radiology at the VA Maryland Healthcare System, thinks that in the near future, computers will be able to gather data from the images themselves as well as data from the electronic medical record to help improve patient care.

"For example, on a typical CT pulmonary angiogram requested from the emergency department, we report whether the study is positive for pulmonary embolism," notes Siegel. "However, we often do not report coronary artery calcifications, loss of height of vertebral bodies, degree of emphysema, etc. These findings could be very useful, however, in certain clinical instances, especially in the coming era of computer algorithms that will help determine things like whether a patient should be put on statins, therapy for low bone mineral density, treatment for hypertension, etc." He goes on to explain that it's likely that computer algorithms will be developed that can assess, quantify, and archive these incidental but potentially clinically significant findings.

For radiologists to be full participants in an era when health care relies increasingly on analytics to measure value, Siegel asserts, imaging professionals will have to figure out how to make their reports and observations discoverable and actionable within the patient's electronic health record. Although many in the profession hail such an increased reliance on technology as a boon to radiology, some view it as an intrusion or a threat to future jobs within the profession. However, Siegel shrugs off such concerns. "I don't believe that this enhanced functionality will result in fewer radiologists but rather in a higher percentage of time spent on analysis, consultation, and communication," he says. "It will allow us to provide better, safer, and more appropriate care for our patients, accelerating our transition to tomorrow's Imaging 3.0™."

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By Chris Hobson, Imaging 3.0 content manager

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