Teleradiology: After decades of maturation, has it become the answer to today’s small hospital imaging woes?
Far gone are the days of simple film-based readings. Imaging modalities in radiology have seen an expansion as a result of new technology and specialties in this area, including pediatric, neurological and vascular. Whether it’s a 3D or 4D ultrasound, targeted biomarker molecular imaging or advanced tomography, the industry is experiencing a digital transformation like never before.
The shift has also introduced new layers of complexity to the mix. Consider the use of hybrid imaging and data analytics toward population health, where mining algorithms and various imaging techniques are now able to identify and assess trends across populations.
It’s no surprise radiologists today are more likely to subspecialize. In fact, the American College of Radiology indicates that the number of general radiologists has plummeted by nearly half over the past years, while subspecialties have seen a dramatic uptick, nearing 72 percent. As more radiologists subspecialize, very few are making the move to rural communities where they may be the only radiologist on staff, and subjected to working what many coin the “nighthawk” hours.
The 2016 annual workforce survey by the Commission on Human Resources at the American College of Radiology notes another trend weighing on demand. In conjunction with a shortage of general radiologists is the rise in imaging demand due to the increase in the aging population, which accounts for more than 41.7 percent of all those needing diagnostic and therapeutic imaging services.
All of this flux is good news if you are one of the approximately 700 academic institutions in metropolitan areas that are able to attract the radiology talent needed to keep pace with the rising demand and sub specializations. For the remaining 4,500 or so smaller hospitals in the US (less than 400 beds), who face consolidations and limited budgets and resources, remaining competitive and current in today’s quickly evolving digital health marketplace is no small task.
However, all is not lost. The technology that is helping to drive these changes is also propelling the field and might be the answer to these challenges for a good number of smaller hospital.
Enter teleradiology. Teleradiology provides remote access to expertise outside of a network, giving smaller, rural community hospitals the option to consult a specialist offsite, spread the workload and keep up with demand.
Teleradiology services are growing both in popularity and in the diversity of offerings supplied, including access to both traditional radiological readings and sub-specialties like MRI radiologists, pediatric radiologists and neuro-radiologists. In fact, the teleradiology market is expected to reach $8.24 billion by 2024, with the biggest growth seen with teleradiology-based computed tomography.,
For those hospitals that require supplemental services including nighttime or weekend readings, teleradiology helps fill that gap with real-time interpretations anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Further, many teleradiology services now have offerings that go beyond readings to include tele-consultations, tele-monitoring and remote image and data handling.
Making the move to adopt a teleradiology solution is not without hurdles. There is a significant upfront cost needed for specialized equipment, on which facilities must also take the time to ensure that technicians are well-trained. The operations also require a robust IT infrastructure to support, including data transfer capabilities and secure internet access.
As one who has come from the field of radiology, I can appreciate the evolution that is happening in this space. I’m excited to see how new advancements, like teleradiology, are helping to fill a very real and current need, and helping us all move further and faster into a new digital era of information-driven healthcare and improved patient outcomes.