Taking a Data-Driven, Multidisciplinary Approach to Radiology Research

Can this Georgia Tech lab improve the economics of radiology and inform healthcare policy?

A new center at the Georgia Institute of Technology will leverage the power of big data and the expertise of an interdisciplinary team of researchers to tackle major challenges in healthcare policy and delivery.

The new Health Economics and Analytics Lab (HEAL) is a partnership between Georgia Tech and the American College of Radiology’s (ACR) Neiman Health Policy Institute. It is being seeded by a five-year, $3 million investment from ACR.

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Danny R. Hughes, Ph.D., the executive director of the Neiman Institute since its founding in 2012, will lead the new lab. He told Healthcare Analytics News™ that the idea for HEAL came out of necessity. Without the resources of a big-name think tank, the Neiman Institute kept running into a problem: Modern health data analytics requires a multidisciplinary effort.

“We would find we would need an industrial engineer to help or we would need a computer scientist,” said Hughes, an economist who has joined the Georgia Tech faculty as a professor.

That meant they were regularly relying on help from outside academics and consultants, services that came with attached consulting fees.

“We felt that we accomplished a tremendous amount of great research over the years,” he said. “But we hadn’t fully embraced and leveraged the kind of medical data that we had.”

That led them to an idea: Why not relocate to a research university where they would have immediate access to a wide range of multidisciplinary experts?

The team looked at a number of top-tier research institutes but ultimately chose Georgia Tech because it seemed to already have an interdisciplinary research approach embedded in its culture.

Although it’s not uncommon to hear research institutions claim to take an interdisciplinary approach, Hughes said most of these entities still judge academics on their professional publications within their own specific fields, thus creating an incentive to be siloed.

“Everyone says that they have [interdisciplinary teams], but when you see how professors go up for tenure [or] promotion, you see how it really is,” he said. “Georgia Tech is a place where it’s not just lip service. It’s absolutely their model.”

Now that the center has landed at Georgia Tech, Hughes said the research potential is vast. As an ACR-funded lab, HEAL will focus on imaging and radiology. During the first part of the 2000s, imaging was the fastest-growing spending area in healthcare, in part because every physician uses the technology. While Hughes said there’s considerable research into clinical and diagnostic elements of radiology, there’s relatively little on the economics of imaging and the effects of healthcare policy on imaging.

One area ripe for research is the effect of value-based care and bundling. For instance, he noted, while mammograms are generally cost-free for patients, women who get called in again often find they must share the cost of the follow-up mammograms with their insurers. That charge could be a disincentive keeping women away from follow-up appointments.

Hughes said one potential solution might be to treat mammography as a single episode, meaning it would be one bill and one charge each year, whether a particular patient ended up needing just one mammogram or multiple ones.

More broadly, though, Hughes said with HEAL at Georgia Tech, he sees a vast array of areas worth studying.

“Anywhere where imaging touches the patient opens up a wide variety of opportunities,’ He said.

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