When TIA Imaging Is Incomplete

A new study in AJR calculates the cost to patients when imaging evaluation is incomplete, finding that people with transient ischemic attack (TIA) who didn’t get full imaging workups were 30% more likely to have a new stroke diagnosis within the next 90 days.

Some 240,000 people experience TIA annually in the US. While TIAs typically last only a few minutes and don’t cause lasting neurological damage, they can be a warning sign of future neurological events to come.

Medical imaging – typically CT and MRI – are key in the neurological workup of TIA patients, and TIA can be treated with antithrombotic therapy, which reduces the likelihood of a stroke 90 days later. Therefore, guidelines call for prompt neuroimaging of the brain and neck in TIA patients, typically within 48 hours, with MRI the primary and CT the secondary options.

But what happens if TIA patients don’t get complete imaging as part of their workup? To answer this question, researchers from Colorado and California analyzed a database of 111,417 people seen at 4,253 hospitals who presented to the ED with TIA symptoms from 2016 to 2017. 

They tracked which patients received complete neurovascular imaging within 48 hours as part of their workup, then followed how many received a primary diagnosis of stroke within 90 days of the initial TIA encounter. Findings included:

  • 62.7% of patients received brain imaging and complete neurovascular imaging (both head and neck) within 48 hours
  • 37.3% received brain imaging but incomplete neurovascular imaging 
  • There was a higher rate of stroke at 90 days in TIA patients with incomplete imaging workup (7.0% vs. 4.4%)
  • Patients with incomplete neurovascular imaging also had a greater chance of stroke at 90 days (OR=1.3)

The Takeaway 

While the benefits of neuroimaging for stroke have been demonstrated in the literature, imaging’s value for TIA has been less certain – until now. The AJR study shows that neuroimaging is just as vital for TIA workup, and it supports guidelines calling for cross-sectional imaging of the head and neck within 48 hours of TIA.

CT Flexes Muscles in Heart

CT continues to flex its muscles as a tool for predicting heart disease risk, in large measure due to its prowess for coronary artery calcium scoring. In JAMA, a new paper found CT-derived CAC scores to be more effective in predicting coronary heart disease than genetic scores when added to traditional risk scoring. 

Traditional risk scoring – based on factors such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and smoking status – has done a good job of directing cholesterol-lowering statin therapy to people at risk of future cardiac events. But these scores still provide an imprecise estimate of coronary heart disease risk. 

Two relatively new tools for improving CHD risk prediction are CAC scoring from CT scans and polygenic risk factors, based on genetic variants that could predispose people toward heart disease. But the impact of either of these tools (or both together) when added to traditional risk scoring hasn’t been investigated. 

To answer this question, researchers analyzed the impact of both types of scoring on participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (1,991 people) and the Rotterdam Study (1,217 people). CHD risk was predicted based on both CAC and PRS and then compared to actual CHD events over the long term. 

They also tracked how accurate both tools were in reclassifying people into different risk categories (higher than 7.5% risk calls for statins). Findings included: 

  • Both CAC scores and PRS were effective in predicting 10-year risk of CHD in the MESA dataset (HR=2.60 for CAC score, HR=1.43 for PRS). Scores were slightly lower but similar in the Rotterdam Study
  • The C statistic was higher for CAC scoring than PRS (0.76 vs. 0.69; 0.7 indicates a “good” model and 0.8 a “strong” model) 
  • The improved accuracy in reclassifying patient risk was statistically significant when CAC was added to traditional factors (half of study participants moved into the high-risk group), but not when PRS was added  

The Takeaway 

This study adds to the growing body of evidence supporting cardiac CT as a prognostic tool for heart disease, and reinforces CT’s prowess in the heart. The findings also support the growing chorus in favor of using CT as a screening tool in cases of intermediate or uncertain risk for future heart disease.

AI Investment Shift

VC investment in the AI medical imaging sector has shifted notably in the last couple years, says a new report from UK market intelligence firm Signify Research. The report offers a fascinating look at an industry where almost $5B has been raised since 2015. 

VC investment in the AI medical imaging sector has shifted in the last couple years, with money moving to later-stage companies.

Total Funding Value Drops – Both investors and AI independent software vendors (ISVs) have noticed reduced funding activity, and that’s reflected in the Signify numbers. VC funding of imaging AI firms fell 32% in 2022, to $750.4M, down from a peak of $1.1B in 2021.

Deal Volume Declines – The number of deals getting done has also fallen, to 42 deals in 2022, off 30% compared to 60 in 2021. In imaging AI’s peak year, 2020, 95 funding deals were completed. 

VC Appetite Remains Strong – Despite the declines, VCs still have a strong appetite for radiology AI, but funding has shifted from smaller early-stage deals to larger, late-stage investments. 

HeartFlow Deal Tips Scales – The average deal size has spiked this year to date, to $27.6M, compared to $17.9M in 2022, $18M in 2021, and $7.9M in 2020. Much of the higher 2023 number is driven by HeartFlow’s huge $215M funding round in April; Signify analyst Sanjay Parekh, PhD, told The Imaging Wire he expects the average deal value to fall to $18M by year’s end.

The Rich Get Richer – Much of the funding has concentrated in a dozen or so AI companies that have raised over $100M. Big winners include HeartFlow (over $650M), and Cleerly, Shukun Technology, and Viz.ai (over $250M). Signify’s $100M club is rounded out by Aidoc, Cathworks, Keya Medical, Deepwise Shenrui, Imagen Technologies, Perspectum, Lunit, and Annalise.ai.

US and China Dominate – On a regional basis, VC funding is going to companies in the US (almost $2B) and China ($1.1B). Following them are Israel ($513M), the UK ($310M), and South Korea ($255M).  

The Takeaway 

Signify’s report shows the continuation of trends seen in previous years that point to a maturing market for medical imaging AI. As with any such market, winners and losers are emerging, and VCs are clearly being selective about choosing which horses to put their money on.

The Perils of Worklist Cherry-Picking

If you’re a radiologist, chances are at some point in your career you’ve cherry-picked the worklist. But picking easy, high-RVU imaging studies to read before your colleagues isn’t just rude – it’s bad for patients and bad for healthcare.

That’s according to a new study in Journal of Operations Management that analyzes radiology cherry-picking in the context of operational workflow and efficiency. 

Based on previous research, researchers hypothesized that radiologists who are free to pick from an open worklist would choose the easier studies with the highest compensation – the classic definition of cherry-picking.

To test their theory, they analyzed a dataset of 2.2M studies acquired at 62 hospitals from 2014 to 2017 that were read by 115 different radiologists. They developed a statistical metric called “bang for the buck,” or BFB, to classify the value of an imaging study in terms of interpretation time relative to RVU level. 

They then assessed the impact of BFB on turnaround time (TAT) for different types of imaging exams based on priority, classified as Stat, Expedited, and Routine. Findings included:

  • High-priority Stat studies were reported quickly regardless of BFB, indicating little cherry-picking impact
  • For Routine studies, those with higher BFB had much lower reductions in turnaround — a sign of cherry-picking
  • Adding one high-BFB Routine study to a radiologist’s worklist resulted in a much longer increase in TAT for Expedited exams compared to low-BFB studies (increase of 17.7 minutes vs. 2 minutes)
  • The above delays could result in longer patient lengths of stay that translate to $2.1M-$4.2M in extra costs across the 62 hospitals in the study. 

The findings suggest that radiologists in the study prioritized high-BFB Routine studies over Expedited exams – undermining the exam prioritization system and impacting care for priority cases.

Fortunately, the researchers offer suggestions for countering the cherry-picking effect, such as through intelligent scheduling or even hiding certain studies – like high-BFB Routine exams – from radiologists when there are Expedited studies that need to be read. 

The Takeaway 

The study concludes that radiology’s standard workflow of an open worklist that any radiologist can access can become an “imbalanced compensation scheme” that can lead to poorer service for high-priority tasks. On the positive side, the solutions proposed by the researchers seem tailor-made for IT-based interventions, especially ones that are rooted in AI. 

Medical Malpractice Crisis

Is a new crisis looming in medical malpractice insurance? An AMA analysis finds that medical liability premiums are skyrocketing again – and radiologists may be among the physicians most affected due to their higher exposure to malpractice suits.

The proportion of medical liability premiums that increased year-to-year for OB/GYN, general surgery, and internal medicine doctors (radiologists weren’t surveyed) doubled from 2018 to 2019 (13.7% to 26.5%), and went up 30% year-to-year from 2020 to 2022. The last time rates rose this fast was during the medical liability crisis of the early 2000s, according to the AMA paper.

Insurers are raising premiums due to deteriorating underwriting results, lower loss reserve margins, and lower returns on investment, per the report. These trends are echoed in a new analysis of the medical malpractice segment by credit agency AM Best, which describes a “difficult environment” for medical liability insurers. The medical professional liability segment has seen eight straight years of underwriting losses.

Why should radiologists care? Well, radiologists are more likely to have experienced medical liability claims during their career than most other physicians. Another AMA survey of over 6k doctors found

  • Radiologists were more likely to say they had been sued in their career than all physician types (40.2% vs. 32.1%)
  • More radiologists have experienced a lawsuit in the past year than all physicians (4.2% vs. 2.0%)
  • The only other medical specialists more likely to be sued than radiologists were surgeons (48.9%) and emergency medicine physicians (46.8%) 

The first AMA report closes by saying that a medical liability insurance “hard” market – a market characterized by rapid price increases – already exists in a number of states, and is “slowly spreading” across the rest of the US. 

Further, there is “striking” geographic variation in premiums. OB/GYNs in Los Angeles County, California see average manual premiums of $49,804 a year, while those in Miami-Dade County, Florida are staring at a $226,224 liability insurance bill.

The Takeaway 

The AMA said the growing medical malpractice crisis could have multiple ramifications. Physicians in states with difficult liability environments could relocate or even drop some clinical services that raise their risk. Will the worsening environment draw the attention of state and federal regulators? Only time will tell. 

A New Day for Breast Screening

In a breathtaking about-face, the USPSTF said it would reverse 14 years of guidance in breast screening and lower its recommended starting age for routine mammography to 40.

In a proposed guidance, USPSTF said it would recommend screening for women every other year starting at age 40 and continuing through 74. The task force called for research into additional screening with breast ultrasound or MRI for women with dense breasts, and on screening in women older than 75.

The move will reverse a policy USPSTF put in place in 2009, when it withdrew its recommendation that all women start screening at 40, instead advising women in their 40s to consult with their physicians about starting screening. Routine mammography was advised starting at age 50. The move drew widespread condemnation from women’s health advocates, but the USPSTF stuck to the policy even through a 2016 revision.

The task force remained steadfast even as studies showed that the 2009 policy change led to confusion and lower breast screening attendance. The change also gave fuel to anti-mammography extremists who questioned whether any breast screening was a good idea.

That all changes now. In its announcement of the 2023 guidance, USPSTF said it based the new policy on its review of the 2016 update. No new RCTs on breast screening have been conducted for decades (it’s considered unethical to deny screening to women in a control group), so the task force commissioned collaborative modeling studies from CISNET.

USPSTF said the following findings factored into its decision to change the guidance: 

  • Biennial screening from 40-74 would avert 1.3 additional breast cancer deaths per 1,000 women screened compared to biennial screening of women 50-74.
  • The benefits of screening at 40 would be even greater for Black women, at 1.8 deaths averted. 
  • The incidence rate of invasive breast cancer for women 40-49 has increased 2.0% annually from 2015-2019, a higher rate than in previous years. 
  • Biennial screening results in greater incremental life-years gained and mortality reduction per mammogram and better balance of benefits to harms compared to annual screening.

The Takeaway 

As with the FDA’s recent decision to require density reporting nationwide, the USPSTF’s proposal to move the starting age for mammography screening to 40 was long overdue. The question now is how long it will take to repair 14 years of lost momentum and eliminate confusion about breast screening.

Learning Curve in DBT Screening

Digital breast tomosynthesis continues to evolve. First introduced initially as a problem-solving tool in breast imaging, DBT is becoming the workhorse modality for breast screening as well. 

But DBT still requires some adjustment when used for screening. In a study of nearly 15k women in European Radiology, Swedish researchers describe how the false-positive recall rate for DBT cancer screening started higher but then fell over time as radiologists got used to the appearance of lesions on DBT exams.

The Malmö Breast Tomosynthesis Screening Trial was set up to compare one-view DBT to two-view digital mammography for breast screening. Unlike some DBT screening trials, the study did not use synthesized 2D DBT images. DBT images were acquired 2010-2015 with Siemens Healthineers’ Mammomat Inspiration system. 

Findings in the study included: 

  • DBT had a sharply higher false-positive recall rate in year 1 of the study compared to DM (2.6% vs. 0.5%)
  • DBT’s recall rate fell over the five-year course of the study, stabilizing at 1.5% 
  • Recall rates for DM varied between 0.5% and 1% over five years
  • Most of the DBT recalls (37.3%) were for stellate lesions, in which spicules radiate out from a central point or mass. With DM, only 24.0% of recalls were for stellate lesions
  • The number of stellate distortions being recalled with DBT declined over time, a trend the authors attributed to a learning curve in reading DBT images

The authors said that the DBT false-positive recall rate in their study was “in general low” compared to other European trials. They claimed that MBTST is among the first studies to analyze recall rates by lesion appearance, an important point because radiologists may see a different distribution of lesion types on screening DBT compared to what they’re used to with DM.

The Takeaway 

The Malmö Breast Tomosynthesis Screening Trial was one of the first to investigate DBT for breast screening, and previous MBTST research showed that DBT can also reduce interval cancers, which occur between screening rounds. 

The new findings offer further support for DBT breast screening and give hope that whatever shortcomings the technology might have early on in a screening role can be addressed through training and experience. It also confirms recent research indicating that DBT has become the new gold standard for breast screening.

The Value of CT Contrast

If there was a tool available that would automatically improve your job performance by nearly one-third, you’d want to use it, right? (And no, we’re not talking about ChatGPT.) The tool is contrast media, and a new study in JAMA Surgery found that the use of contrast in emergency CT exams improved the diagnostic accuracy of radiologists by 30%.

Radiology has a love-hate relationship with contrast. Contrast media unquestionably improves medical image quality, but it also adds a layer of complexity to imaging operations. Patients have to be screened and monitored for contrast allergies and reactions, IV lines have to be placed, injectors have to be monitored and maintained. 

Radiology researchers and clinicians have explored a variety of methods for non-contrast imaging, in particular in the emergency setting, where the time spent setting up a contrast exam could delay patient care. 

But while the risks of giving contrast are extensively debated, what are the risks of not using it? Researchers from multiple US institutions sought to answer this question in a study of 201 patients who got CT scans in emergency departments for acute abdominal pain over 3 weeks in 2017. All patients were scanned on Siemens Healthineers’ Somatom Force dual-source dual-energy CT scanner.

The original scans were contrast-enhanced, and a dual-energy technique was used to produce non-contrast images. Both sets of images were read by faculty and resident radiologists. Compared to the gold standard of contrast CT at 100%, findings included:

  • Diagnostic accuracy of unenhanced CT was 70%, or 30 percentage points lower than contrast CT
  • Faculty radiologists were more accurate than residents for primary diagnoses (82% vs. 76%), but less accurate for actionable secondary diagnoses (87% vs. 90%)
  • Faculty made fewer false-negative primary diagnoses than residents (38% vs. 62%)
  • False-negative and false-positive results were common (19% and 14%, respectively)

The Takeaway 

Reducing the use of contrast is a worthy goal, but it carries risks of its own, as this study indicates. False-negative interpretations are among the worst kinds of radiology errors with non-contrast exams, and clinicians should weigh the diagnostic penalty of withholding contrast media in the emergency setting, especially given the extremely low rate of contrast reactions in low-risk patients.

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