Radiology Matters

Radiology Is Evolving in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mary Beth Massat


Appl Radiol. 2020;49(6):42-45. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


As the rapid spread of COVID-19 led to the temporary closures of radiology practices and imaging centers earlier this year, exam volumes dropped between 40 and 90 percent.[1] Hospitals re-allocated resources to combat the wave of infected patients, overwhelming staff and leading to both bed and equipment shortages in many areas. Non-urgent imaging, including screening exams and cancer patient follow-up, was halted.

"We learned how important it was for … organized radiology to be a clear voice on what was safe and appropriate during a pandemic," says Geraldine M McGinty, MD, MBA, FACR, president of the American College of Radiology (ACR). The ACR has been a key source of COVID-19-related information to help practices navigate the pandemic, including guidance on safely reopening and obtaining financial support from the federal government.

Thanks to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' (CMS) suspension of restrictions on telehealth, remotely provided medical services have skyrocketed during the pandemic, accounting for 43.5 percent of Medicare primary care visits in April compared to 0.1 percent in February.[2]

"Many practices realized that they could provide more services remotely," says Dr McGinty, who is also an associate professor of clinical radiology at Weill Cornell Medicine and chief strategy officer of Weill Cornell's Physician Organization in New York City. While remote reading did not make up a large portion of many radiology practices, she and her colleagues realized it would be vital to delivering important health services for the foreseeable future.

"Telemedicine will be critical to the future of imaging, from the basics of rapid interpretation utilizing home workstations, to obtaining consent for interventional procedures and doing patient follow-up visits at home," says Edward Steiner, MD, FACR, chairman of imaging and radiation oncology at WellSpan York Hospital in York, PA. Dr Steiner adds that 20 to 30 percent of radiologists across WellSpan Health are performing more remote reading.

At WellSpan, video patient visits are being implemented to limit in-person contact before and after procedures. The system's facilities are also asking patients to wait in their cars until they are summoned by phone call or text to enter the clinic or office for their appointment.

Virtual healthcare is a capability whose time has come, says Rasu Shrestha, MD, MBA, executive vice president and chief strategy officer and transformation officer for Atrium Health in Charlotte, NC.

"The role of leadership is to provide … clarity," says Dr Shrestha. "That is really important during a time of crises and also moving forward as we come out of the crisis. Leading by humility and prioritizing empathy is really important, and I think you have got to prioritize science."

Atrium Health has turned on an AI-powered chatbot to help enhance communication with patients, a step that has exceeded expectations.

"The chatbot has allowed us to really connect in a meaningful way with our patients and our communities to answer questions and help triage them," Dr Shrestha says.

In addition to implementing COVID-19 screening and temperature check stations, Weill Cornell Medicine has migrated to electronic check-in and pre-registration forms. Along with the obvious benefit of reducing contact between staff and patients, these measures have also helped to reduce paper usage—an important step toward a truly electronic and paperless hospital.

Amidst the changes wrought by the pandemic is the realization that screening exams remain vital to preventive health and patient care. While screening mammograms were paused during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, most facilities are resuming breast cancer screening.

"October is always a month where we want to raise awareness and amplify the conversation about the importance of screening for breast cancer," Dr McGinty says. "This year, we added a message to our patients that it's important to not miss a year."

She also stressed the importance of practices to clearly communicate how diligently they are implementing cleaning and infection prevention protocols so patients are aware the equipment and exam rooms are safe.