September 09, 2019

Q&A With Marta E. Heilbrun, MD, and Alex J. Towbin, MD

In this Physician Spotlight, we talk with the co-chairs of the ACR® Annual Conference on Quality and Safety — Marta E. Heilbrun, MD, and Alex J. Towbin, MD — about what you can learn from the nation’s leading quality experts to help you boost service quality and how to integrate the latest informatics and decision support solutions for optimal reporting and patient outcomes.

What’s different about this year’s Q&S Conference?

Towbin: This year, the theme is about patient engagement and empowering patients. We have several speakers who are patients or patient advocates, and we’re showcasing radiologists engaging with our patients and families. This year, we’re also including different perspectives: business managers, technologists, radiologists. We’re embracing the concept that quality improvement requires a team approach. It's not just one radiologist or a group of radiologists doing the work.

Why is that patient-centered focus so important, especially now?

Heilbrun: As we struggle with what is high value care in radiology, we must understand that our “customer” has changed. In years past, our traditional customer has been the referring provider. But today, we recognize that our patients are the true customer of the service that we provide. So, this is an opportunity for us to understand, "What do they want? Why do they want it? Do we meet those needs?" By addressing what our patients want, we both remain relevant and become those whom our patients seek for our expertise in relation to their conditions.

What are the new pre-conference workshops all about?

Towbin: On Thursday, Oct. 10, we’re kicking off the Q&S conference with intensive, half-day pre-conference workshops focused on four critical topics. When you register for the meeting, you can also register to attend one of the concurrent sessions that allow attendees to take a deep dive into: Quality Improvement Bootcamp, Implementing a Peer Learning Program, Creating Machine Learning Use Cases, and a Meet Up for Quality Improvement Leaders. These are sessions for everyone who’s committed to quality improvement, no matter what stage you are.

What are the opportunities for networking and sharing best practices?

Heilbrun: We are deliberate about bringing together people who are nationally recognized for being involved in quality improvement. But we also build in quite a bit of downtime between sessions, with expectation that people will talk. The thought leaders are all there in an intimate space, and they’re ready to talk and share ideas and lessons learned with other like-minded colleagues and those who are interested in gaining knowledge in these areas.

Why should radiologists get involved in transforming the patient experience?

Towbin: Most of us get into medicine because we want to help patients. In radiology, we often feel disconnected from the patient, but it doesn't have to be that way. The work we do in our practices, departments and institutions directly affects our patients’ care. So, we need to change the way we think to focus on how we can improve healthcare for our patients using all means necessary rather than just diagnosing a condition or reporting a finding. There's a holistic way to help our patients that starts when they're choosing which site to come to, and it goes through their experience as they get their imaging and all the way to the point when they receive their bill. It also includes how we interact with referring doctors, because that also affects the patient experience. All of those are connected, and quality improvement is what helps make the entire experience better for our patients every step of the way.

What is the importance of working on quality improvement as a team?

Heilbrun: Quality improvement is fundamentally about recognizing that there is always the opportunity to do better, to do more, to eliminate waste, to think about a different way of doing things. And it’s a team activity. A radiologist is only as good as the front desk staff that checks in a patient and makes sure he or she feels welcome, or the person who gives a patient the instructions to prepare for an exam, or the person developing information systems that identify if a patient has an allergy. All of those things impact the patient experience and, ultimately, the information that we garner when we interpret their imaging. It is necessary to have everyone together, thinking and working on improving the patient experience.

Bottom line: Why should people attend?

Towbin: The ACR quality and safety conference is the conference for people who are passionate about quality improvement in radiology. It is the place to share ideas, network, meet other people doing the work and learn from each other. Attendees are friendly and welcoming. We really want to learn from each other, meet each other and invite new people in. As healthcare switches from volume to value, it's the people who are leading in quality improvement who will succeed. And this is the meeting where you’ll gain the tools to advance in that world.

Heilbrun: No matter what, each of us is trying to provide the best possible care for our patients and to make the greatest impact on their diseases and wellness. This is the one conference that is going to give you the skills to know whether or not you're making that progress. You can go to a conference and learn how to interpret abdominal CTs, but this is a conference that's going to let you know if you actually got better at patient care. It's a conference to attend with the idea of opening yourself up to self-reflection and change. Just bring an open mind.

Meet the Physicians

Marta E. Heilbrun, MD, is Vice Chair of Quality and an Associate Professor in the department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at Emory University. Clinically, she is an abdominal imager, with a focus on imaging the genitourinary track and pelvis with both CT and MRI. She serves on the RSNA Radiology Informatics Committee as the Chair of the Structured Reporting Subcommittee. Her research and career activities foster working environments that improve patient care through workplace and workflow design using data, evidence and shared decision making to drive decisions.


Alex J. Towbin, MD, is a radiologist, the Neil D. Johnson Chair of Radiology Informatics, and Associate Chief of Radiology, Clinical Operations and Radiology Informatics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He is a recognized leader in pediatric radiology and imaging informatics. In his clinical role, he specializes in pediatric abdominal imaging. His research focuses on clinical informatics, quality improvement, cancer imaging and imaging of the liver.