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We must focus on people not equipment when it comes to radiology technology

20 November 2023 at 21:40:06

In 1979, Hounsfield and Cormack won the Nobel prize in Medicine for the invention of the CT scanner. In the 45 years since, medical imaging has undergone a revolution. Whether it’s functional MRI or molecular-level imaging, radiology is at the forefront of medical innovation.

Today, its role in the patient journey is more important than ever as healthcare systems around the world struggle with the lasting effects of the pandemic. Challenging backlogs, late disease presentation, and growing waiting lists together with an exhausted healthcare workforce are some of the challenges faced by healthcare providers globally. Within radiology, workforce challenges are particularly severe as the workforce has not grown in line with the significantly increased demand for medical imaging. Medical advances have meant that there has been a rapid increase in the number and complexity of scans but not enough radiographers to perform the scans or radiologists to report them.

This leads to real-world consequences for patients for whom delays in imaging can have catastrophic consequences. Days, hours, and minutes matter hugely when it comes to diagnosis. Delays in diagnosis prevent early treatment and lead to poorer outcomes.

For too long, decision-makers have valued equipment more than the people, focusing primarily on increasing the number of scanners. This is of course important, but investing in scanners without investing in the workforce will not address the bottlenecks that exist in imaging. There is a global shortage of both radiographers and radiologists. Without radiographers, scans cannot be performed and without radiologists, scans cannot be interpreted.

Working with limited resources means that healthcare systems must focus on allocative efficiency: ensuring that the time of clinical staff is used in the most efficient way possible can massively speed up the reporting process. In healthcare systems under strain, rota management can often be overlooked but it is a vital tool to improve efficiency. Making the most effective use of precious resources such as radiographers and radiologists is key: It can mean that patients are scanned more efficiently and that  the right scan gets to the right radiologist at the right time.

Radiology rostering is highly specialized and niche but getting it right to optimize output is essential. Enterprise-level rostering solutions are not always effective in a hospital. For example, organizing an anaesthetic department’s workforce will be very different to organizing the workforce of a radiology department, and nurses are rostered in differently to doctors. Asking departments and wards to use the same rostering software could mean that the key problems unique to each are not solved.

In the case of radiology, both radiologists and radiographers have different levels of specialist expertise. Not all radiologists report the same types of studies and as well as reporting scans, they perform procedures, teach and lead multi-disciplinary team meetings. Radiographers have similar levels of complexity in terms of their profiles – some are specialised within certain modalities such as CT, MR or ultrasound whilst others can not only perform studies but also report them.

Taking into account these complexities to optimize efficiency is vital but complex. But the next generation of complex tools is being designed to do this and also provide accurate business intelligence functions for radiology departments so that they can improve how they allocate scans, forecast supply and demand and monitor performance.

A huge advantage of people-focused technology solutions is that they are cost-effective to implement, and results can be seen almost immediately. Clinicians and hospital decision-makers need to be given the time, resources and autonomy to create innovative, bespoke solutions.

Many healthcare workers have become suspicious of the promise of health technology, but solutions that are focused on efficiency need not add additional admin burden, and indeed should free up healthcare workers to focus on their core work. Building sustainable systems that are able to scale will also lead to greater resiliency moving forward.

The 1946 WHO Constitution states that ‘the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being.’  The pandemic has shown us that we live in a global community, problems faced in one part of the world impact those living in another. It is now more important than ever that we build sustainable healthcare systems and getting imaging right is a fundamental component of this.

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