Private Practice Perspectives

The pros and cons of pathology lab ownership: What early career GI doctors need to know


 

From colonoscopies to endoscopic ultrasound, gastroenterology is fundamentally a procedure-based specialty. Given that reality, making a decision to have as much control as possible over the entire process just makes sense for many GI practices.

Dr. Paul Berggreen, president of Arizona Digestive Health and chief strategy officer of the GI Alliance

Dr. Paul Berggreen

Back in 2008, I was in charge of the process to develop a pathology lab at Arizona Digestive Health, a physician group with 26 locations throughout the state, as part of our decision to form a supergroup with eight ambulatory surgery centers. For us, having ambulatory surgery centers had been a game changer. We learned we could double our efficiency with procedures when we controlled the process from start to finish. We began to consider other processes – in this case pathology – that we could improve.

Prior to running our own pathology lab, doctors who read our slides were general pathologists who did not always understand the language of gastroenterology. We had results that came back by fax that were often cumbersome to read and did not always give us the information we needed in the way we needed it. Consistency was a problem. We knew we needed a change.

I cannot lie – setting up and running your own pathology lab is not always easy. But with the right factors in place, here are some benefits to consider when you are making a decision about joining a practice.

Quality, efficiency can lead to opportunity

Our lab has three GI fellowship–trained pathologists reading our slides. That means they are highly specialized and know exactly what we are looking for in a pathology report. We have a 24-hour turnaround for results. A courier service delivers biopsy specimens from our endoscopy centers to our path lab every day, and each morning our gastropathologists have a stack of pathology slides waiting for them. It’s added predictability and stability to the process, and we get the level of quality, specificity, and uniformity we need in a report.

The efficiencies are beneficial and it has given us more leverage in our negotiations with payers. We know what our costs are and have great quality metrics as well as read rates that we can provide. This signals to health plans that quality is a top priority for us.

We have also gained a reputational benefit with patients. Although much of the work is happening behind the scenes for our patients, they get results faster and a consistency with costs. It also allows us to easily access the slides of patients we have been seeing for years, giving us a richer data set and more confidence in our diagnosis.

Now that we have our own lab, we can look at our pathology data and conduct studies that will benefit all patients. For example, a few of our GI fellows were able to work with our pathologists to conduct a study on adenoma detection rates, exhausting a tissue block when no adenoma was found on initial review. We found a significant increase in adenoma detection using this method; we plan to publish results soon. The ability to conduct this kind of research is worth considering when early career gastroenterologists are selecting a practice to join.

And last but not least, having our own pathology lab acts as a unifying force for our group, which is spread out across 26 offices. When diagnoses are available and we get a call from our pathologist, we know to pick up the phone immediately.

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