New study analyzes the dramatic decline in the utilization of imaging diagnostics between 2008 and 2014 and suggests that reductions in imaging use could be the result of changes in federal policy, increased deductibles, and cost-cutting focuses

Anatomic pathologists have experienced sustained cuts to reimbursements for both technical component and professional component services during the past eight to 10 years. But what has not happened to pathology is a 33% decline in the volume of biopsies referred to diagnosis. Yet that is what some studies say has happened to imaging reimbursement since 2006.

Using Medicare data for Part B imaging procedures covering the years 2001 to 2014, researchers at a major university identified that, beginning in 2006, the total reimbursement for imaging procedures declined at a steady rate throughout the following eight years covered by the study. It is unclear what implications the finding of this study of imaging utilization might predict for the utilization of advance anatomic pathology services.

Routine Use of Imaging in Diagnostics is Slowing Down

The research into imaging utilization was conducted at Thomas Jefferson University and published in the journal Health Affairs. Led by David C. Levin, MD, Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Department of Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, the researchers examined imaging data from Medicare Part B (2001-2014) to determine the reason and rate of “slowdown” in routine use of imaging in diagnostics.

The researchers calculated utilization rates for “advanced” imaging modalities and component relative value unit (RVU) rates for all imaging modalities. They determined that trends in imaging rates and RVU rates rose between 2000 and 2008, but then sharply declined from 2008 to 2014. The researchers theorized that the reduction might have been due to changes in federal policy, increasing deductibles, and focus on cost-cutting by hospitals and healthcare providers.

Levin, along with Thomas Jefferson University associates Vijay M. Rao, MD, FACR, current Chair of Radiology, and Laurence Parker, PhD, Associate Professor of Radiology; and University of Wisconsin-Madison statistics Professor Charles D. Palit, PhD, argue that the decrease in imaging orders might reduce diagnostic costs, but also could negatively impact surgical pathologists, radiologists, medical researchers, and patients themselves.

In a Modern Healthcare article, Levin states that the reduction in utilization of imaging and radiology could be a slippery slope leading to decreased access to life-saving diagnostic tools that could leave patients “not getting the scans they probably need.”

What’s Fueling the Multi-Year Decline in Utilization of Imaging and Radiology?

In the Journal of American College Radiology, Levin, Rao, and Parker, attempt to “assess the recent trends in Medicare reimbursements to radiologists, cardiologists, and other physicians for non-invasive diagnostic imaging (NDI).”

Using data acquired from Medicare part B databases, the authors reported that total reimbursements for NDI peaked at $11.9 billion in 2006, but saw a steep decline of 33% to just over $8 billion in 2015. They attribute some of this decline as a result of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which went into effect in 2007, as well as other cuts to NDI reimbursement funding. Reimbursement to radiologists, according to Levin et al, dropped by more than 19.5%, and reimbursement to cardiologists dropped nearly 45% between 2006 and 2015.

Surgical pathologists may see parallels in the total reimbursement for imaging during the years 2002-2015 compared to pathology technical component and professional component reimbursement during those same years. Taken from the Thomas Jefferson University study, the graphic above shows “total Part B payments for non-invasive diagnostic imaging to all physicians under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule, 2002 to 2015. Vertical axis shows billions of dollars. The abrupt decline in 2007 was due to the Deficit Reduction Act. The declines in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were due largely to code bundling in, respectively, transthoracic echocardiography, radionuclide myocardial perfusion imaging, and CT of the abdomen and pelvis.” (Caption and image copyright: Thomas Jefferson University.)

In different Journal of American College Radiology article, Levin and Rao outline their concerns over another suspected cause for the decline in imaging utilization—the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIMF) Choosing Wisely initiative.

According to Levin and Rao, the Choosing Wisely initiative was intended “to reduce the use of tests and treatments that were felt to be overused or often unnecessary.” Imaging examinations were included in the list of tests that were deemed to be “of limited value” in many situations. Levin and Rao suggested that there might have been a need to curtail testing pushed by payers, policymakers, and physicians at the time, but that the Choosing Wisely initiative could have added to a decline in imaging testing spurred on by the confusion physicians felt when attempting to access unclear scenarios and recommendations for the 124 imaging tests listed.

Imaging Decline Could Have Unintended Consequences for Providers and Patients 

In a Radiology Business article, Levin outlined some of the unintended consequences facing healthcare due to the reduction in imaging utilization. He states that “private imaging facilities are starting to close down” and “MRI and other advanced imaging exams are beginning to shift into hospital outpatient facilities.” He predicts that the shift from private facilities to hospital facilities could cause imaging costs to increase for customers and healthcare providers.

Levin suggests that Medicare could “raise the fees a little and make the private offices a little more viable.” The profit margins, Levin argues, “are so low right now that you basically can’t run a business.” Medicare as a program might be seeing huge savings, Levin notes in several articles, but physicians, laboratories, and patients are feeling the pinch as a result.

In an interview with Physicians Practice, Rao echoed Levin’s concerns. “Policy makers lack understanding of the value of imaging and spectrum of the services provided by radiologists,” he declared. “On an institutional level, under the new payment models, radiology is transitioning to a cost center and radiologists often don’t have a seat at the table.”

Rao points out that this devaluing of radiologists’ work affects not only healthcare facilities, but patients themselves. Radiologists provide “major contributions to patient care by making accurate diagnoses, and doing minimally invasive treatments given many technological advances leading to appropriate management and improved outcomes,” he argues. How long before Pathology follows a similar track?

Balancing Cost and Quality in Testing Without Sacrificing Patient Needs

The fear seems to be that the push to lower costs by eliminating unnecessary imaging is inhibiting radiologists and diagnosticians from providing necessary imaging for patients. And that delaying diagnoses affects the ability of healthcare providers to provide adequate and timely patient care. Rao suggests, however, that physicians’ use of medical imaging could simply be evolving.

“There were other factors that also helped limit the rapid growth, such as greater attention by physicians to practice guidelines, concerns about radiation exposure to patients, and the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” Rao noted in a Thomas Jefferson University news release. “However, we expect that additional changes, such as the advent of lung cancer and other screening programs, and the use of computerized clinical decision support, will continue to promote and support appropriate use of imaging technology.”

The drive to reduce healthcare expenditures should not be dismissed. We may soon see parallels in the rise and fall of imaging utilization for genetic testing, surgical pathology, and other new and expensive clinical laboratory technologies as policymakers attempt to balance increased spending against the clinical value of these diagnostic tools.

Amanda Warren

Related Information:

The Overuse of Imaging Procedures on the Decline Since 2008

After Nearly a Decade of Rapid Growth, Use and Complexity of Imaging Declined, 2008–2014

Reducing Inappropriate Use of Diagnostic Imaging Through the Choosing Wisely Initiative

The Recent Losses in Medicare Imaging Revenues Experienced by Radiologists, Cardiologists, and Other Physicians

Five Minutes with David C. Levin, MD: Outpatient Imaging Cuts and Unintended Consequences

Ten Questions with Vijay M. Rao, MD, FACR

Diagnostic Imaging Transitions from Volume to Value

Imaging Use Plunges as Coding, Reimbursement Tightens Up

Has the Time Come for Integration of Radiology and Pathology?

Reference Pricing and Price Shopping Hold Potential Peril for Both Clinical Laboratories and Consumers