Owners say the improvements should help recruit new radiologists.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
BOARDMAN -- Change is in the air at Southwoods X-Ray and Open MRI.
The private practice radiology center is completing $5 million in improvements at its Boardman office, including installation of close to $4 million in new diagnostic equipment.
The 10 physicians who own Southwoods have been forced to make some business relationship changes as well, leaving behind a decades-old working arrangement with Humility of Mary Health Partners to ink a new contract with its competitor, Forum Health.
And finally, the center has linked with Siemens Medical Solutions, a major medical equipment manufacturer, as one of three centers in the country contracted to conduct new technology research.
Southwoods doctors and technicians are working with Siemens engineers to develop and perfect the latest in medical testing devices.
Siemens doesn't want Southwoods to reveal the locations of its other two research sites, said Southwoods business manager Jim Fulciniti, but they're both big name, Ivy League facilities.
"We're big Kahunas and nobody knows about it," Fulciniti joked.
The new equipment and research opportunities will improve the center's service to its patients, and the owners believe the changes will also help to attract new radiologists to Southwoods. There's a national shortage of radiologists, Fulciniti explained, but the improvements might serve as incentive for those considering a move to the Mahoning Valley.
Southwoods X-Ray was founded by a group of radiologists in 1929 to serve St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, and the group opened its first office outside the hospital in the 1970s.
The owner group, which operates under the business name Radiology Consultants Inc., has been at its current location at 250 DeBartolo Place in Boardman for 25 years and has a second office in Poland.
Dr. Steve Aubel, a vice president of the owner group, said the partners made the first in a series of major improvements last spring when they installed a high field open MRI system.
Although many patients may prefer an open MRI because it is less confining and makes them feel less claustrophobic, he said, open MRIs are often weaker and less efficient than traditional, closed MRIs.
Southwoods' new high-field open MRI combines the open structure with a stronger, more advanced magnet technology that can be used for the same tests performed by a traditional, tunnel MRI.
Southwoods already had a low-strength open MRI, and the doctors weren't sure they had enough MRI patient volume to justify adding a new machine, Dr. Aubel said.
"We took a chance and decided to put it in anyway," he said. "We promoted the technology to the community and to the doctors, and it's picking up. Our volume has doubled for MRIs."
MRI testing makes up about one-eighth of the center's total business volume, but because of the high cost for the diagnostic test, MRI fees provide 35 percent of its revenue, said Dr. Richard Barr, another radiologist owner.
Southwoods also performs a wide range of other procedures, including CT scans, mammography, ultrasound, bone density tests and biopsies.
Also new at the Boardman center is a stationary PET-CT Scan, a sophisticated and highly accurate cancer diagnosis tool that cost the owners about $1.8 million, including installation costs.
The device is used for cancer patients to determine whether the disease has metastasized to other parts of the body. Doctors expect to roll out its PET-CT testing in November.
Southwoods is adding an outpatient area, what the doctors are calling an interventional procedures suite, where patients can go for biopsies and other medical procedures that might otherwise be performed at a hospital.
"Outpatient treatment is almost always easier on the patient, if it's appropriate," Dr. Aubel said. "We want to be able to offer a full range of treatment, and cancer will be our biggest focus."
Southwoods has increased its floor space by about half to accommodate the outpatient facility and other improvements, the owners said. The business employs about 40 at its Boardman and Poland offices, up 50 percent from the size of its work force six years ago.
Falling out with HMHP
Right around the time Southwoods was ramping up its new open MR system last spring, Dr. Aubel recalled, the center received notification that Humility of Mary Health Partners would not be renewing its exclusive agreement for radiological services. No reason was given at the time, he said.
"We were devastated, shocked and disappointed," Dr. Aubel said. "Our private practice is very important, but if we didn't have a hospital base, we couldn't be viable."
Tina Creighton, an HMHP spokeswoman, said competition between Southwoods and some HMHP facilities had become an issue, and the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
"We would like to thank the physicians associated with Radiology Consultants for their service to St. Elizabeth Health Center and wish them the best in their future endeavors," she said.
Southwoods owners signed a new agreement to provide radiological services to Forum Health, HMHP's major competitor in the Mahoning Valley, Dr. Aubel said, but only after attempts to negotiate a settlement with HMHP failed.
"Some doctors were upset with us, but it wasn't our decision," he said. "We were shown the exit. We were asked to leave."
Under the new agreement, which takes effect Monday, Southwoods doctors will provide radiological services to Northside Medical Center, Beeghly Medical Park and Austintown Medical Park.