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Support for Rural Health — Facing the Needs and Challenges of Medical Imaging in Rural America

By Jeremy Probst

Rural communities attract businesses and residents for a variety of reasons. While they may not feature all the amenities larger cities provide, they need to have the basics, including proper health care facilities. Unfortunately, studies show that 1 in 5 rural hospitals in the United States are at high risk of closing due to financial concerns, which are partially related to maintaining medical imaging equipment. The effect of these closures is substantial. For example, patients who need a CT scan, mammogram, or MRI may have no option but to drive long distances to get the diagnosis and care they need, which can substantially affect the outcome of their treatment.

The loss of a rural health care facility can also directly impact the local economy. Businesses such as manufacturers often move to rural areas due to the space needed for their facility and the availability of local labor. Access to health care is high on their checklist of priorities.

Sadly, health care facility closures can sometimes begin with end-of-support letters that hospitals receive from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). When health care facilities receive end-of-support notification from OEMs, the potential cost to upgrade equipment can be devastating. New medical imaging systems can come with a price tag well over $1 million, which can be a major burden on already financially strapped institutions. Wanting to maintain properly working equipment and staying in business shouldn’t be a choice between two options. Clearly, better end-of-support solutions are needed.

What Do End-of-Support Letters Really Mean?
Health care providers often receive notices from OEMs about imaging systems becoming obsolete. After receiving these kinds of letters, rural hospitals may be forced to close, in part, because their budgets will not permit the purchase of replacement equipment, and end-of-support cooperation may be limited with respect to key equipment.

However, OEM letters and the denial of new service contracts for older equipment can be partially viewed as a sales tactic. Manufacturers may use the opportunity to push providers towards upgrades, even though existing systems work perfectly well and can be effectively serviced in-house.

Fortunately, some of the imaging equipment for which an end-of-support notice has been received may still be able to meet ACR standards for image quality. What health care facilities may not understand is that end-of-support notices are simply to inform hospitals that the OEMs will eventually cease providing the replacement parts needed to keep the system running. They don’t necessarily mean that the equipment needs to be replaced or that there are no other sources for parts and service.

There is actually an increased chance that replacement parts are available for older equipment that has been on the market for years and is just reaching the end-of-support stage. The aftermarket availability of medical imaging parts is currently very stable, meaning it is completely possible to service equipment in-house and get many more years of use from it.

Health care facilities can rely on field service engineers within an independent service organization to keep a system running at far less than the cost of replacement. The right parts provider can assess equipment and determine where it is on the end-of-life timeline, so that more comfortable and accurate budgeting can take place. The savings of maintaining equipment, rather than replacing it, could make the difference between a facility having to close and being able to continue serving their rural community. The bottom line is, rural health care facilities do not need to rely on parts, service, and support from OEMs because there is a network of reliable third-party service and parts providers who can deliver the same, if not better, quality while easing their financial burden.

Get Up to Speed
End-of-support letters can serve as reminders for health care facilities to make sure they are up to date on preventive maintenance for their equipment. Keeping up on maintenance will help ensure that all parts are functioning properly and indicate where attention may be needed.

Imaging staff should be trained on servicing their equipment in-house approximately four to six months before the end of a service contract with an OEM. A parts provider can provide service training with online or in-person training programs. Hospitals can also request a service and parts contract directly from the parts provider.

Ultimately, leaving the OEM doesn’t mean there’s a risk. A properly designed and executed service program will maintain reliability of equipment for years to come.

For rural health care providers, the good news is knowing that there are other options beyond the OEM to help provide parts, training, and support along with service and maintenance for medical imaging systems. These options will not only keep equipment running for many years to come, but they can positively impact a facility’s bottom line and help them continue to serve their communities.

— Jeremy Probst is president and CEO of Technical Prospects.