The Radiologist Shortage and the Potential of AI

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In a report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the data highlighted an urgent need for physicians with a shortage of nearly 122, 000 by 2032. In the UK, the situation is equally tight with just ‘2% of radiology departments able to fulfill their imaging reporting requirements within contracted hours’.  This is according to a report released by the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) entitled ‘Clinical Radiology U.K. Workforce Census Report 2018. The same report found that only one out of every five trusts and health boards in the UK has enough interventional radiologists to provide the service required to perform urgent procedures. 

Across the ocean, the 2018 American College of Radiologists (ACR) Commission on Human Resources Workforce Survey published in 2019 found that, in spite of a positive radiologist job outlook, there was a 30% increase in job openings from 2017 to 2018. 

The radiologist shortage isn’t restricted to the USA and the UK – other countries are struggling. In Australia the radiologist shortage has affected hospital care and service delivery in some areas, with many scans being sent offsite to be analyzed due to the limitations of staffing onsite. In South Africa, the 2019 Integrated Report released by Life Healthcare highlighted how a shortage of radiologists and radiographers were affecting growth prospects in both Poland and South Africa. 

There’s a dearth of radiologists globally and this is putting pressure on systems already strained by limited resources, aging populations, and complex funding challenges. It’s also not exactly a welcoming environment for up and coming radiologists as they face reduced reimbursements and increased volumes. In the UK, the RCR felt that the NHS wasn’t employing enough radiologists to provide ‘safe and effective care’.  The RCR also found that the existing radiologist shortage sits at 1, 104 with it possibly increasing to as much as 1, 867 by 2023 which is a concerning statistic when looked at alongside the increase in CT and MRI scans that went up by 10% year-on-year since 2013. 

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How Hospitals are Adapting to the Radiology Shortage 

In addition to 30-day waiting times, the challenges that this introduces are limitations in patient care and delayed diagnoses. For patients, the situation isn’t ideal, and that’s an understatement. Patients and consultants both are being affected by the radiologist shortage and there’s an urgent need to resolve the problem before it becomes more pronounced. 

The radiologist plays a critical role in patient care. Their ability to rapidly assess and detect issues such as brain hemorrhage, pulmonary embolism, cancer and fracture is all that lies between a patient’s full recovery or death and disability. Through their swift detection, they can minimize further patient care and reduce the burden on the healthcare system. So what are hospitals and healthcare organizations doing to adapt to, or address, the radiologist shortage? 

In the USA, the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2019 was developed and submitted to congress. Its focus is on providing increased Medicare support to 3, 000 new residency positions annually. In the UK the breast radiologist shortage has been approached by both the RCR and the Association of Breast Clinicians. The organizations are developing standardized national training for medical practitioners that want to become holistic breast technicians and funding is being provided by the National Breast Imaging Academy (NBIA) and Health Education England. 

For low-resource countries, RAD-AID – an international and volunteer-driven NPO – has put in place measures to support radiologist development and uptake. The organization is focused on bolstering skills and access to healthcare within low-resource countries and regions and has developed a Radiology Readiness tool that analyses the needs and infrastructure restraints within a specific region. The tool allows for them to then create a plan for that region that involves anything from training to workstation configuration to implementing new technology solutions. 

It’s in the latter that many healthcare institutions are placing a great deal of hope. Technology. The demand for skilled medical professionals has forced hospitals to think outside of the box when it comes to patient care and managing ever-increasing workloads. 

AI and the Radiologist Shortage 

What artificial intelligence (AI) can do is provide the medical community with much needed additional support that can potentially reduce the healthcare skills crisis to manageable levels. A recent article in the Journal of mHealth outlines how technology is an opportunity, not a threat. AI is not at the point where it can replace the radiologist. This may never happen. What can happen now, however, is the implementation of AI to support the radiologist and provide a second, safe pair of hands. 

The ‘colleague that never sleeps’. AI is a tool that provides additional insights to the medical profession burdened by increased workloads and patient requirements.  Providing a fast and efficient supporting diagnosis, AI can reduce reporting times, improve analysis, automate basic tasks, and integrate seamlessly with workflows. It’s the extra radiologist in the radiologist shortage and its capabilities are constantly evolving.

Aidoc implemented its deep learning radiology technology across multiple locations and geographies, providing increased clinician support and workflow optimization to burdened systems and radiologists. Abnormalities are quickly identified and prioritized and radiologist workloads balanced more effectively. Aidoc is designed to support the radiologist that works a 10-12-hour day just to keep up with punishing workloads and industry requirements. With Aidoc, they can spend more time working with patients and other professionals while still getting a rich analysis of medical imagery and data.

While AI in healthcare is still in the early stages of its potential, it has already seen significant results. The future still lies in the hands of the medical professionals, but they are now being supported by technology that understands their unique needs and environments and reduces the stresses that they experience on a daily basis.

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