Marketing vs. medicine: Strong sales pitches worry doctors

  • Article by: GLENN HOWATT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2002 - 10:00 PM

Radiology used to happen only in hospitals behind doors marked "Do Not Enter."

Now the increasingly complex work of medical imaging can take place miles from the hospital, sometimes in strip malls and semitrailer trucks.

While radiologists still serve a vital role helping doctors diagnose and treat cases, their new visibility puts them ever closer to patients.

Even patients who aren't sick.

Customers with cash but no symptoms can learn whether they have early signs of heart disease or lung or colon cancer. Most of the metro area's larger radiology practices are offering heart and lung scans and virtual colonoscopies -- no doctor's referral required.

Retail scanning is a growing business for radiology. It helps offset the costs of the imaging machines, which can start at $1 million and go as high as $5 million each.

Radiology clinics also hope that the patients will become repeat customers when they need doctor-ordered imaging for kidney stones, back problems or other medical conditions.

But the clinics are taking some heat from physicians who warn that consumers and medicine aren't quite ready for this sophisticated technology to be available to anyone who can afford the $400 for a heart or lung scan and $875 or more for a virtual colonoscopy.

The idea of scanning healthy patients is so new that nobody knows whether it will allow people to live longer or healthier lives. It's also unclear whether such screening will drive up society's health care costs. Two fears are that scan results will cause healthy people unnecessary worry and make other patients overconfident about their health.

In the meantime, state regulators are scrambling to ensure that consumers are protected. Minnesota, with the support of the radiology industry, prohibits so-called full-body scans without a doctor's referral because unnecessary radiation exposure to the abdomen can cause harm.

Still, like cosmetic surgery and laser surgery for eyes, scanning is advertised on television, radio, magazines and newspapers.

When St. Paul Radiology opened its Woodbury imaging center in September, the company brought in Vikings coach Mike Tice for the grand opening ceremony. Two grand prizes were given away: a health scan and a football autographed by Tice.

LifeDiagnostics Imaging Center, a new $2.9 million radiology clinic in downtown Minneapolis, carefully used interior design to recruit patients, portraying itself as "soothing" and "spa-like," as well as "futuristic."

The clinic's designer said he was told to make the clinic look like the fictional Starship Enterprise or a ride at Universal Studios amusement park. The clinic, which also opened in September, needs to attract patients from other radiology clinics to be successful, its owner says.

Decorative touches include pulsating lights that ring the room containing the 5-ton MRI scanner. They "can produce every color of light to man's eye," said designer Steve Stokes of FreemanWhite Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C. "It can be theatrical. It will move, flash, however you program it."

While the clinic might seem like a diversion for owner Hennepin Faculty Associates, the staff doctors at Hennepin County Medical Center, it is part of a strategy to strengthen the radiology program at the hospital.

If successful, the clinic will give chief of radiology Dr. Chip Truwit more resources for the doctor's group and the hospital at a time when payments from insurers and government programs have been tight.

The clinic expects retail scanning to be 10 to 15 percent of its business. Other radiology groups said that retail scanning is never expected to become a major revenue component.

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