Opening the Gates to Medical Imaging Screenings — In Conversation with Andrea A. Birch, MD

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4 min readJan 30, 2024
Photo by Freepik

We’re on a long journey towards a brighter future of equitable and accessible healthcare. Many hospitals and the communities they serve get left behind when it comes to specialized services due to lack of resources — but through collaborative efforts and tactical solutions to improve facilities, the healthcare system can work towards expanding access and affordability.

Today, we are in conversation with Andrea Birch, M.D. With over 30 years of experience as a breast imaging radiologist, Dr. Birch is a seasoned health equity advocate. She actively works to raise awareness about women’s breast health, all while steadfastly working towards the overarching mission of dismantling barriers and reducing disparities.

Andrea, you know that one of the U.S. Department of Health’s “Healthy People 2030” objectives is to expand access to health services, including radiology or medical imaging screening. What will this accomplish and how can we create broader access to screening centers?

“Let us start by accepting that everyone has the right to adequate healthcare. Radiologists are gatekeepers in that effort as medical screening is a necessary stage of the patient’s journey where life altering medical conditions can be identified and addressed. For many people, accessing and affording specific screenings becomes the barrier between receiving a diagnosis and getting the necessary medical treatment. How do we make it accessible, affordable, and easy for patients to get the necessary medical imaging? One way is to have it all housed together, where they can have multiple screenings within the same day. In this way, a center readily achieves what is typically very hard in a traditional hospital setting.

“Many hospitals have a robust clinical offering, but the opportunity to take advantage of hospitalization services is underutilized. Patients are fine going to that venue for their ambulatory medical care, but have different hospitalization preferences. In these cases, we need to rethink how we position these hospitals: What services can they offer that would put them on a map for success, towards becoming a thriving organization that is utilized to its fullest extent?

“In the standard setting, a patient goes to a hospital with medical imaging equipment and gets filtered through with many other inpatients and outpatients coming in for all kinds of tests. This is neither efficient nor effective. One idea is to curate the services of an underutilized hospital and establish one-stop-shops where you provide patients the opportunity to get multiple essential imaging screenings done. As word gets out that these facilities are providing a cohesive experience, they will become the go to venue. People will start to tell their friends and family, ‘If you want medical imaging screening, this is the hospital you should go to — they have a well-oiled machine and can get you in and out.’

“On another note, there are many hospitals that don’t offer a full array of necessary services or don’t have the staffing to support them; it’s not a given that any one facility will have certain medical imaging screening offerings available, or for that matter up-to-date equipment. This is especially true for hospitals in rural settings. People in regions far from city hospitals usually have less access to timely medical imaging testing and might not even be aware of what is available in other nearby areas. By forming partnerships between rural hospitals that serve neighboring regions we can coordinate all of the available services and promote which facilities offer which specific screenings. This way, the patients in those localities will have greater access to the necessary quality imaging.

“As for the ‘Healthy People 2030’ objective — as I look at health care challenges such as rising mental health instability or the rate of maternal mortality, particularly among Black women, we definitely remain under-resourced and ill-equipped to tackle them. We are faced with a tremendous effort needed in order to address the myriad challenges in healthcare, especially when so many people do not have access to adequate care. We have to figure out how to dismantle policies that prevent patients from getting what they need.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to keep chipping away at the rock. The rock changes over time — and one day the rock just may crumble.’ That’s exactly why we have to keep approaching these issues from different angles. We need to find new avenues of thought and then ensure we turn the proposed ideas into action.”

Andrea, the idea of creating medical screening hubs in underutilized hospitals is truly innovative. Thank you for sharing it with us.

About Andrea A. Birch, MD: with over three decades of experience in patient care and teaching, Dr. Birch focuses on using her sphere of influence to improve lives by ensuring people take action. As an instructor and mentor, she strives to pass on knowledge and inspire a thirst for life-long learning. She is active in raising awareness about women’s breast health. Her overarching mission is to work towards achieving health equity, breaking down barriers and reducing disparities.

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