Hospitals struggle with lack of radiologists

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • March 03, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

When Eta Stine tried to make an appointment for a breast cancer exam at Northwestern University's Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center last November, she was told the center could accomodate her -- in nine months.

She scrapped plans to get an appointment at Northwestern, and scheduled an exam at another facility in January. 

"Frankly, I think it borders on criminal to have to wait nine months for an appointment for a mammogram," she says.

But that could increasingly become the norm, according to a new study that predicts a growing shortage of mammography professionals in the United States. Doctors and patients worry that  delays like the one Stine experienced could affect the early detection of breast cancer, which has been linked to improved survival rates.

“We already have a shortage,” says Dr. Peter Jokich, associate professor of radiology and director of Rush Medical Center’s breast imaging section. “The shortage will become worse as more and more women enter the mammography age.”

The American Cancer Society recommends women over 40 get a mammogram every year.

The study, conducted at the University of Albany’s Center for Health Workforce Studies, found shortages could particularly affect residents in poor and rural areas.

Radiology is an unpopular medical field, hampered by historically low pay, a higher risk of malpractice suits and a lot of government regulation, says study author Margaret Langelier.

Jokich, whose department conducts about 24,000 breast imaging exams a year, agrees.

“It’s kind of a big problem,” he says

Jokich says radiology centers in Chicago are suffering from small staffs of certified radiologists, and are having trouble recruiting new radiologists. Last year, officials at Northwestern Memorial Hospital apologized to women in Chicago for not having enough staff to treat patients seeking care.

"The growing national shortage of radiologists who have advanced training in reading mammograms has had a significant impact on us," wrote Dean Harrison, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare’s president and chief executive officer. Radiologists, in higher demand than ever, are being recruited by other hospitals that offer higher pay or better working conditions, Jokich says.

At Northwestern’s Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center, several specialists left the hospital early last year, putting more work on the shoulders of their remaining colleagues, says spokeswoman Kris Lathan. Currently about five radiologists are on staff; Lathan says the hospital would like to have 12 radiologists. She says more specialists are expected to join the staff this summer.

Reversing the downward trend will be difficult, Jokich says.

“You have to convince (radiologists) that they have to go into this specialty,” he says. “The only way you’re going to probably be able to do that is to bump the salary above some of these other specialties. It’s almost like you have to use whatever carrots they use in the private sector and other fields to get people to pick this field.”

Northwestern’s radiology residency program will provide it with more specialists, Lathan says.

Nancy Amicangelo, a two-time breast cancer survivor, says she has had to wait several weeks for an appointment. While her experience is mild compared to some, she says women who have to wait longer for a mammogram risk missing the early detection of breast cancer.

 “Clearly if you have to wait a year for a mammogram, that could cost you your life,” says Amicangelo, director of the Breast Network of Strength’s Illinois chapter. “The problem is, a lot of women going for mammograms, they don’t know there’s anything palpable there.”

Most hospitals find a way to get patients treatment, even if there is a long wait. Northwestern began referring patients to other treatment centers in Chicagoland late last year, Lathan says.

 “(Women) need to look at their other options,” says Amicangelo. “There are plenty of hospitals and clinics in this city that are perfectly capable of performing the proper screening. They just need to call around.”

But, she says, many women are reluctant to look at other facilities if they’re used to a particular treatment center.

Jokich says the importance of annual screenings can’t be overlooked.

“You can’t wait a year for an appointment that is due now,” he says.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17