As I write this, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is spreading across the globe, inciting fear and anxiety. Aside from frequent hand-washing and other routine precautions, many leaders, officials, and bloggers are advocating for limiting person-to-person contact. This has resulted in cancelation of many professional society meetings, sporting events, and social gatherings, and has stimulated new conversations regarding working from home and virtual meetings. Although these suggestions have many clear benefits (such as the decreased burden of commuting; limiting the spread of infection), there are additional reports describing the impact loss of face-to-face interactions may have on job satisfaction, workflow efficiency, and quality.
The current practice of medicine, more than ever, relies on a team approach. No one individual has the time, knowledge, or experience to tackle all aspects of an individual’s care. No one is an island. Unlike many television shows that highlight a single physician performing everything from brain surgery to infectious disease testing, the reality is that we each rely on countless other members of the healthcare team. That practice of medical imaging, ultrasound, in particular, is no different. Whether we work in a radiology, cardiology or vascular, or obstetrical/gynecology practice, the team, and more importantly the relationship between team members, is paramount to an effective and impactful practice.
As a radiologist in a busy academic center, I rely on and value my personal relationship with my team of 50+ sonographers. These relationships have been facilitated by day-to-day, face-to-face interactions, allowing me to get to know the person behind the ultrasound images. These interactions foster an environment of trust. For my most experienced sonographers, my implicit trust ultimately leads to fast, efficient and precise exam interpretations, while for sonographers I rarely work with, my index of suspicion regarding a finding is naturally heightened, impacting my confidence in my diagnosis and thus affecting my interpretation, and ultimately how my report drives patient care.
The trust goes both ways: a strong relationship also fosters honest communication whereby sonographers can come to me with questions or concerns regarding exam appropriateness, adjustments to imaging protocols, and the relevance of a specific imaging finding. The direct interaction provides an opportunity for sonographers, new and experienced, to be provided immediate direct feedback regarding their study—they can learn from me, and often I from them, making us all that much better at the end of the workday.
In addition to trust, open communication allows for users of ultrasound to take advantage of one of the key differentiating features of ultrasound compared to other modalities: the dynamic, real-time nature of image acquisition. Protocol variations can be discussed on-the-fly. Preliminary findings can be shared with the interpreter, and additional images can be obtained immediately, without having to rely on call-backs, inaccurate reports, and reliance of follow up imaging (often by other modalities). This ultimately enhances patient care and decreases healthcare costs. In our practice, we have the ability to add contrast-enhanced ultrasound for an incidental finding, allowing us to make definitive diagnoses immediately, without having to recommend a CT or MRI—this would not be possible if it were not for a personalized checkout process.
We continue to hear about changes in ultrasound workflow across the country: sonographers and physicians, small groups and large, academic and private practices have all considered or have already implemented changes that minimize the communication between sonographer and study interpreter. This places more responsibility on the sonographer to function independently, and minimizes or even eliminates the opportunities for quality control and education. Sonographer notes and worksheets, and electronic QA systems, are poor substitutes for the often more nuanced human interaction. In my experience, these personal encounters enhance job satisfaction, and the lack of it risks stagnating learning and personal drive. There have been many sonographers that have left local practices to join our medical center specifically to take advantage of the sonographer-radiologist interaction we continue to nurture.
Some elements driving these transformations are difficult to change: growing numbers of patients; increasing reliance on medical imaging; medical group consolidation; etc. Many changes to sonographer workflow have been fueled by a focus on efficiency (decreasing scan time, improving modality turn-around times, etc.). Unfortunately, these changes have been made with little regard to how limiting team member communication impacts examination quality, job satisfaction, and patient outcomes; for those of you in a position to address workflow changes, consider these factors. For sonographers yearning for this relationship, do not be afraid to reach out to your colleagues and supervising physicians—ask questions, be curious, and engage with them. Nearly everyone appreciates a human interaction, and even the toughest personality can be cracked with a smile and some persistence. In the end, it is the human interactions and the open and honest communication that not only make us better healthcare providers but happier and healthier human beings.
David Fetzer, MD, is an assistant professor in the Abdominal Imaging Division, as well as is the Medical Director of Ultrasound in the Department of Radiology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Interested in reading more about communication? Check out the following posts from the Scan:
- POCUS in Pediatrics, by Alyssa Abo, MD, FAAP, FACEP
- Women in Ultrasound Leadership: Seeing the Future, by Renee Dversdal, MD, FACP
- Training and Integrating Sonographers via Dedicated Preceptors, by Will Lindsley, RDMS (FE, OBGYN, AB), RVT
- Sonographers and Contrast-Enhanced Ultrasound, by Corinne Wessner BS, RDMS, RVT