teleradiology diagnostic breakthrough or breakdown in communication

Last week we wrote a post about teleradiology and some of the benefits and downfalls associated with it. One of the biggest benefits of teleradiology is the ability to have experienced radiologists read X-rays and scans 24/7. Using teleradiology, even small hospitals that are unable to keep radiologists on staff at all hours can provide patients with prompt test results.

However, do the radiology errors that sometimes accompany teleradiology outweigh the benefits? Our post last week described the medical nightmare of a 30-year-old woman from Pennsylvania. She spent 11 weeks in a coma after a breakdown in the communication that is critical to ensure the success of teleradiology. In this tragic case, several doctors noticed a buildup of fluid around the woman’s brain, but no one acknowledged that the condition could be fatal.

As patients and members of the medical profession weigh the benefits of teleradiology against the potential risks, it is important to understand how widespread the practice is. According to the CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, “The majority of hospitals use teleradiology in one form or another.” As a result, if you have had an X-ray, CT scan or MRI in the last few years, there is a good chance it was outsourced.

Unfortunately, patients have no way of knowing who is reading their scans. Some fraudulent companies have made huge profits by hiring unqualified technicians to read scans that are outsourced. In other situations, doctors illegally put their electronic signatures on radiology reports that they had not read.

One former president of the American College of Radiology said that patients often assume their scans will be read in the hospital. Not only is that incorrect, but in most situations, there is not a way for patients to verify if the people whose names are on their reports have actually read them.

Despite the number of errors that have been documented, teleradiology is not going anywhere. Hospitals will not trade “cutting-edge digital equipment for old-school films.” Moreover, cash-strapped hospitals will not suddenly generate the funds to keep radiologists on site at all hours of the day.

So what will it take to stop careless or negligent health care professionals from putting innocent patients at risk by failing to follow proper protocols or exercise proper caution in the complex chain of communication often involved in teleradiology? How many more serious or even fatal mistakes will need to be made before there are enough safeguards in place to protect vulnerable patients?

Patients cannot travel with their scans to ensure qualified radiologists are reviewing them. However, there are steps patients can take to help ensure their scans are handled properly. Read more in our next post to learn what you can do to reduce the chances of radiology errors.

Source: msnbc, “Is a doctor reading your X-rays? Maybe not,” Katherine Eban, SELF, Oct. 26, 2011

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