Gloomy outlook for radiologists

by Grace

“The times of graduating from medical school and driving a Porsche are done,” according to a radiology resident witnessing the gloomy outlook for his medical specialty.

At St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, a dozen radiologists in training, including Dr. Luke Gerges, 28, are suddenly stranded on an expensive road to nowhere. All received termination notices recently because their hospital is ending their residency program next year as part of a plan to replace its radiologists with a teleradiology company that reads diagnostic images remotely.

“Those days of raking in the dough with radiology are gone,” said Dr. Gerges, who is four years beyond medical school and $300,000 in debt. He said he chose a specialty he loves without caring that big salaries were waning, but never imagined it would be this hard to finish his postgraduate training and get a job.

An unsustainable growth in costs has led to the remote reading of radiology images.

Starting in the 1980s, the advent of technology like M.R.I.’s and CT scans, combined with a fee-for-service system, created ballooning demand for imaging and drove the compensation of radiologists to unsustainable heights, he said. “That led to a sense of entitlement in some people’s minds,” he said. “And that led to this development of offshore remote reading of cases.”

By 2001, with the supply of radiologists limited by a 1997 Congressional cap on all Medicare-supported residencies, nighttime demand was unmanageable for smaller emergency rooms. So-called nighthawk radiology services began pooling the diagnostic imaging loads of several hospitals and transmitting them electronically to American radiologists stationed overseas or working from home.

Though outsourcing to India grabbed headlines, the big growth in teleradiology was domestic. Now the nighthawk companies, staffed by recent radiology graduates, are competing for the daytime work, too.

According to one hospital spokesman, remote reading may actually improve the quality of care as well as cut costs.

Other specialties are also seeing restricted growth.

Few specialties have been immune to the same factors depressing radiology: deep Medicare cuts, cut-rate competition driven by technology, doubts about the health value of many tests and procedures and new measures to tilt public money to primary care.

Meanwhile, nurse practitioners are projected to nearly double in number by 2025.

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