By Mark Dobbs

The pandemic is forcing healthcare institutions to make difficult choices when it comes to managing operations and making investments. This includes the realm of radiology, where clinicians are stretched thin.

To thrive in the new normal, healthcare organizations need help to weather the pandemic. They must take the opportunity to invest today to address these immediate challenges, as well as set the stage for use of innovative technologies like imaging artificial intelligence (AI) at scale—to drive improved care and greater productivity.

Healthcare facilities are strikingly different from the way they were pre-COVID. Facilities are sparsely populated due to COVID social distance restrictions, and also due to patients deferring care. Research from TransUnion Healthcare, a subsidiary of TransUnion focused on healthcare revenue protection solutions, finds that use of services remains low, with visits for low-acuity diagnoses down as much as 74% the week of August 16 compared to the week of March 1.

The pressure on staff will continue to mount as facilities begin to work through an unprecedented backlog. An estimated 40 million mammography procedures are performed in the United States annually. At the height of the pandemic, the need to delay or cancel appointments equates to almost 770,000 delayed mammography procedures per week. Further, the current situation strains a specialty already facing a shortage of radiologists in the U.S.

As patients resume normal care, radiology staff must reschedule procedures efficiently and safely, optimizing their resources as best as possible for the short and long term. This is where teleradiology and expanded use of AI show promise. All of this requires a strong infrastructure and foundation for the data at the heart of diagnostic imaging.

The AI Connection

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for enterprise imaging and telehealth via remote access to imaging and reports. It also shines a spotlight on the need for expanded use of AI and machine learning in imaging, with the dual goals of improved diagnoses and greater clinician wellness and job satisfaction.

Regardless of whether radiology is conducted onsite or via teleradiology, AI can and must play a growing role. We first think of AI in the clinical setting, where it serves as a support for diagnosis—more as augmented intelligence to improve accuracy rather than a workforce replacement. AI also has the potential to reduce bias and inform clinical decision-making and treatment while decreasing turnaround times. Applying AI on less complex modalities can also free up radiologists’ time to focus on specialized modalities and reduce burnout.

Further, AI can improve explainability and transparency in imaging, and support integrated care initiatives, which rely on swaths of data analytics at the point of care to be actionable. In a major milestone, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently approved, an AI stroke platform, for reimbursement, enabling hospitals to widely adopt the advanced technology for improved stroke care—and representing the first AI software to secure this approval. Imaging tech that delivers on AI and security while ensuring room for future innovations will be essential.

Invest to Optimize Today and Tomorrow

To accelerate AI, healthcare organizations need to create a modern data experience. Driven by the pandemic and a quick shift to telehealth, they already got a taste of what it’s like to innovate faster. Now, healthcare organizations are grappling with immense financial pressures. They want to continue to accelerate investment but must invest smarter than ever during austere financial times.

Enabling a modern data experience is an investment that yields both short- and long-term dividends. It enables healthcare organizations to extract maximum value from their imaging platforms while reducing complexity for radiologists and expense—all in service of value-based care. It starts at the data foundation, with a data-centric architecture, and has four main characteristics: simplicity, sustainability, speed, and seamlessness.

The modern data experience is simple, providing an easy clinician and patient experience by delivering the image to the right person at the right time. It is also future-proof—eliminating forklift upgrades and the cost of replacing legacy technology to bring imaging into the not-too-distant future of expanded use of AI. It’s not easy to predict storage needs, but the right data foundation enables strained healthcare organizations to use only what they need and scale up or down, even as the organization’s business needs evolve.

With the explosion of imaging data—to 2 trillion images per year, globally—radiology’s data foundation must be on the leading edge of performance. A modern data experience enables increased throughput and decreased turnaround time that overworked radiologists need. It is reliable, consistently delivering needed performance no matter the workload conditions or a specialist’s location. Moreover, it is seamless, consolidating applications and removing data silos that have become so common.

In conclusion, organizations need a strong investment that delivers today and into the future. The modern data experience not only sets the stage for expanding AI use, but provides the foundation to support new technologies, larger volumes, and speed that organizations need today. It provides not only the opportunity to solve immediate challenges, but also support continued, accelerated innovation.

Mark Dobbs runs global healthcare alliances, enterprise imaging, at Pure Storage. Questions and comments can be directed to AXIS Imaging News chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].