The Crossroads Imaging Center, the first facility in Howard County to offer magnetic resonance imaging, is about to get a dose of competition just two months after opening its doors in Ellicott City.
Last week, Howard County General Hospital began scheduling patients for its $1.7 million MRI unit, which is housed in a new building constructed on hospital grounds in Columbia. A grand opening was held Thursday.
The new unit is a joint venture between the hospital, the Columbia Medical Plan and two groups of physicians and radiologists known asHealth Care Professionals of Howard County and Diagnostic Radiology Associates.
A major medical advance, MRIs produce images by measuring the response of hydrogen atoms in the body to radio waves within a strong magnetic field. The result is an image that is considered better than an X-ray and avoids exposing patients to dangerous radiation or dyes.
Until recently, Howard residents who needed an MRI procedure were referred outside of the county, usually to facilities in Baltimore.
Officials at both imaging centers in the county say there is probably enough demand for the procedure to support both MRI units. Neither, however, would concede any territory to the other and both suggested that quality service would give them a competitive edge.
Floyd Hartfield, president of Howard County Health Services Inc.,the company that oversees the hospital's joint ventures, said the hospital MRI unit is expected to conduct 2,800 to 3,000 procedures in its first year.
"It takes a lot of patients to support an MRI," Hartfield said. "Physicians will refer to those places that they feel most comfortable with; where the technicians are good and the quality of the image is good."
Hartfield said he expects the hospital facility to draw heavily from doctors affiliated with the hospital or withthe Columbia Medical Plan, adding that the hospital MRI offered convenience for patients seeking a number of procedures in one location.
He said he assumed that the Crossroads facility was handling referrals primarily from St. Agnes Hospital in Catonsville.
But officials at Crossroads, which opened last December, say that isn't so.
While the facility is owned by a group of radiologists affiliated withSt. Agnes, they say they have already built a solid base of referrals from not only the Catonsville area, but also from independent physicians in Howard County.
"We're developing a loyal following," saidDr. Ellis B. Norsoph, medical director at Crossroads. "We're establishing a referral base and building a practice based on the quality ofcare we offer."
Norsoph said a marketing study conducted for Crossroads indicates there is enough demand for the MRI in Howard to support two units. He declined, however, to release details of the study or to reveal the center's goals for this year.
Officials at both centers agreed that competition would not affect the costs of the service, since such pricing is fairly standard and physicians typically do not "shop" for MRIs based on price.
At Crossroads, Norsoph said,the average cost of an MRI procedure is about $800. At the hospital,Hartfield said, the cost of a procedure is in the $500 to $1,000 range.
While those charges are not substantially different, officialsat Crossroads said they allow medical insurance payments to cover the full cost of the procedure.
At the hospital, Hartfield said, medical insurance payments would generally cover 80 percent of the cost,with the remainder being paid by the patient.
Another area where officials disagree is over which unit will produce the best image.
Hospital officials contend that their larger magnet will result in asharper image.
"All things being equal, the larger the magnet, the better the resolution," said Hartfield.
Crossroads officials saytheir magnet may be smaller, but it is equipped with special coils that do a better job of capturing incoming signals and improving the image.
Norsoph said any suggestion that the Crossroads MRI will notproduce a good image is "misleading" and "shows a lack of knowledge about the equipment."