Until 2011, Washington Radiology Associates, a multi-location practice in the nation's capital and suburbs, offered the same basic two-dimensional mammograms as most of its peers.
So when the practice decided to invest millions in more than a dozen 3-D mammography units (plus related software upgrades and workstations), it bet on the premise that patients would be willing to spend extra money out of pocket for a service not yet covered by commercial payers.
"We invested in [them] because we believe it's the best technology available for patients," says administrator Patrick Waring, noting that patients pay a $50 fee to undergo testing with the 3-D machine, a process also known as breast tomosynthesis. Waring declined to specify exactly how much the group spent on the technology.
Fewer than 18 months later, the investment has started to pay off in both tangible and intangible ways. To date, 35,000 patients have opted for 3-D scans, opening up a new revenue source for the practice and increasing the frequency of related breast-care services such as biopsies.
Best of all, the machines, which work by rotating around the breast in an arc to create images at up to 70 different angles, help physicians detect cancer sooner.
"This allows the radiologist to see past architectural distortions," says Waring. "It gives them better information for detecting cancers and reducing false positives."
Breast tomosynthesis is cutting-edge diagnostic medicine. But for Washington Radiology, it also represents a way to grow its business: by offering its patient base an in-demand service, and asking them to pay for it. What the practice has found is that patients are not only willing to pay for services they value — they're happy to.
Your practice can follow this path, too. Driving new revenue through ancillary service lines can be a bulwark against the declining revenue and increasing overhead common to modern practice, and the services can be big patient pleasers.
But be warned: Not every ancillary service is right for every practice. The key is to pick services your patients want and need, that provide them a legitimate benefit, and that you can perform without major disruption to your regular operations.
Traditional revenue streams
Before you rack your brain for an ingenious instant-millionaire idea, consider some of the less-glamorous, traditional ways to make a little extra money.
Former anesthesiologist William Dirkes is president and chief research officer of Cincinnati-based Sentral Clinical Research Services, LLC, which helps office-based physicians conduct pharmaceutical drug trials. Dirkes estimates that only about 5 percent of practicing physicians conduct drug trials in their practices, due to worries about the process, the potential startup costs, or the ethics. The upfront work includes researching the drug trial and getting patients signed up, among other tasks, and some physicians are uncomfortable with allowing their patients to be part of an experiment.
"It's not just something you can slap onto your practice," says Dirkes, adding that initial training on ethical issues and research on the drug and disease can take about five hours. Physicians will also have to spend 15 minutes or so a week to keep up with what's going on. "It's not a lot, but it's not like just writing an order for a test."