COVID-19’s watershed moment for radiology
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything in healthcare, and radiologists have gone from “burned out” to “benched.” Many questions remain about what the future holds for the field.
In December, tens of thousands of radiologists gathered at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting. Many of us were talking about concerns that included physician burnout, enormous workloads, and the potential for missed findings that can follow.
What a difference six months can make.
Now radiologists join the rest of the world in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant impact it’s had on our personal and professional lives. It’s clear to me that the way we work today doesn’t look like it did a few months ago, and it will change again in the recovery phase of the pandemic.
COVID-19’s impact on radiology
COVID-19 has already significantly impacted radiology. As patients postpone elective procedures and preventive screenings, there are far fewer images for radiologists to read.
I’m also hearing more about practices that are seeking opportunities to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 by offering dedicated COVID-19 offices or spaces. There are significant changes to how these practices conduct testing. For example, they’re taking precautions such as using 30-minute time slots instead of the traditional 15-min appointments to reduce likelihood of patients interacting between appointments, and to provide extra time to clean. They are asking patients to wait in their own cars instead of waiting rooms. They’re working to have fewer staff interacting with each other and patients.
Between reduced screenings and changes to testing practices, by estimations by some health systems, there is a 39%-60% reduction in imaging volume, with 55%-79% reduction in outpatient imaging volume1. And these reductions are anticipated to last a minimum of three to four months.2 To adjust for these changes in volume, organizations are streamlining schedules and staffing arrangements. I anticipate that we may see an increase in retirements or shift to part-time schedules as the workforce finds equilibrium with declining demand.
Another change that is affecting the field is the increase in teleradiology and remote work. Many companies, including IBM, are finding remarkable ways to get their employee populations working remotely. It speaks to the power of technology to shape opportunities for remote work. Healthcare organizations are also finding ways to enable clinical functions off-site.
For radiologists to be able to read images from home, they need secure remote imaging access. They need proper equipment and technical support to achieve this flexibility and to continue to effectively read images, diagnose and treat patients. As an added benefit of remote access, physicians don’t have to travel to the physical location where the patient image was captured, which can help mitigate their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Radiology after the pandemic
In such a dynamic environment, it’s hard to predict what the future holds for radiology, and just how many of these “temporary” changes will become permanent. Will imaging return to pre-COVID-19 volumes? Will streamlined staffing models be able to scale up to meet demand when it begins to grow again? Will the pandemic affect how well the field can interest and retain radiologists?
I don’t have a crystal ball, and I agree with experts from Yale University who said about the uncertainty of the impact of COVID-19 on radiology: “Incomplete data complicates long-term modelling.”2 But I do anticipate a few new realities for radiologists:
- Sub-specialists that retain (and are willing to use) general radiology skills will have more options in the new normal.
- Reading images remotely will become a more viable option after this stress-test period, and this will have important effects on departmental consulting and resident training.2
- Radiologists must continue to lead in adoption of trusted artificial intelligence (AI) to take better care of our patients more efficiently.
I’d advocate that we don’t necessarily want to “go back to the way it was” for radiologists. It wasn’t perfect; radiologists were burning out and staggering under their workloads. Instead, we should take this opportunity to establish a new normal for radiology. It will be important for us to harness technology to adapt to changes and conquer challenges. And how we emerge from this crisis will be important for the future health of patients, communities and ourselves.