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RSNA 2012: Push health IT staff, radiologists to speak same language

Tips from RSNA 2012 session can apply to interfacing any health care IT staffer with non-IT clinicians using the technology they maintain.

CHICAGO -- It's an age-old paradox of health care IT: Typically, the IT staff doesn't know clinical practice, and practitioners don't know IT. So it's hard for one group to understand the others' problems.

Speakers on both sides of the fence at the Radiological Society of North America's 2012 Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting offered pointers to attendees for bridging the gap. While the process might be awkward, they said clinical and non-clinical staff need one another's help desperately at this time. The IT department needs to prove its worth to an institution lest its services get outsourced, and doctors and nurses need to leverage technology to get more efficient as reimbursements decline.

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The disconnect starts with one side oversimplifying the other's job. "Radiologists have this perspective, 'I just upgraded my home PC to Windows 8,' why can't you install a PACS on my workstation?" said Marc Kohli, M.D., of the Indiana University Department of Radiology. "IT professionals will have this attitude, 'You're just going to have to get used to this, it's only going to take four more clicks.'"

Getting the two staffs working together to improve patient care in general -- and productivity in particular -- is a tough nut to crack. But it's worth the effort and may ultimately pay off in time and jobs saved, said Kohli and his co-presenters, Chris Meenan, director of operations for University of Maryland Imaging Research Technology Lab, and J. Raymond Geis, M.D., a Fort Collins, Colo., radiologist. They offered the following tips for representatives of both camps to start communicating more effectively:

IT culture is critical to your success. They should be your strategic advantage.

Chris Meenan, director of operations,  University of Maryland Imaging Research Technology Lab

  • IT staff, in particular, should practice active listening techniques to not only demonstrate they comprehend the problems clinical staff are describing, but it also might help them come up with more thoughtful solutions. While this doesn't mean IT staffers should have to apologize that a clinician is experiencing a problem, it helps to say something along the lines of "I hear your problem, now we're going to work on a solution together," Kohli said.
  • Health care IT staff should also solicit feedback from clinicians after solving problems. Understanding and analyzing customer satisfaction is the first step toward improving effectiveness, Meenan said. Also, take surveys to find out what improvements clinicians want from IT. The radiologists his group serves indicated in a survey that they didn't want to have important messages sent over broadcast emails as was the norm. It turns out they wanted improved communication (phone calls, instant messages, etc.) when something significant was going on with the network, so Meenan's team accommodated them.
  • Clinicians, for their part, should invite IT staffers to observe them at work at their computers. IT is getting more and more physically removed from the practitioners, Meenan said, and many don't know what the room looks like where their users work, let alone comprehend the patient care workflows their users employ. Real-time observation not only gives IT staffers a better idea of how things work, but also gives the clinicians a chance to ask questions and point out software glitches while they're working that they might otherwise not be able to explain or have time to enumerate on a helpdesk ticket.
  • Clinicians, read the manual. While that might seem like it came from the IT camp, this tip was suggested by Geis, who added that if the clinicians understand the features of the software they use, they might spot workflow shortcuts or see capabilities of the software their non-clinical IT peers can't.
  • CIOs, delete the negative customer-service culture from IT. A favorite IT acronym is PEBCAC (problem exists between computer and chair). If staffers hang signs, have bumper stickers or wear t-shirts with slogans like these that reflect a bad attitude towardtheir users -- which isn't that uncommon, Meenan said -- it's hard to build camaraderie.
  • Administrators and clinical staff should share with IT staff the hospital's clinical values and mission statement, and let them adopt it too. While they may not be clinicians on the frontlines, health care IT staffers can enable better patient care and can make software work better if given the responsibility of carrying out the clinical mission, too.

Finally, clinicians should also take time to thank the IT staff. They answer pager calls in the middle of the night. They will offer ideas for improving data systems and clinicians' interactions with technology, if asked. When transitions to large new clinical software applications take place, they make it happen.

Taking IT staffers out to dinner, with a few words from a department head or hospital administrator -- especially at the conclusion of a long technology transition that probably involved much lost sleep and some tense meetings  -- goes a long way in clearing up headaches between clinical and IT staff. At the very least, Geis said, have a stack of ice cream or Starbucks coupons in your desk to hand out when an IT staffer comes by to make your computer work again. 

"IT culture is critical to your success," Meenan reminded physicians in attendance at the RSNA 2012 session. "They should be your strategic advantage. They should not be the people who are fighting you to get your job done every day."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer or contact @DonFluckinger on Twitter.

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