family member supporting woman with cancer

Relationships Key to Radiation Therapy

An estimated 43.8 million people were living with cancer in 2018, but death rates for people with cancer are dropping due in large part to advances in early detection and treatment. ​We at KLAS are eager to help cancer-treatment technology save even more lives. That’s one reason I’ve been so enthusiastic about the publishing of KLAS’ Radiation Therapy 2019 report.

The good news is that there really isn’t a bad option for radiation therapy equipment. Each solution has pros and cons, but the vendors are really good at pushing each other and raising the bar for this technology.

That being said, no healthcare facility should make a decision about radiation therapy equipment with a coin toss. As providers in the field can attest, purchasing a piece of radiation therapy equipment is like getting married, except that ripping up and replacing a machine can be even more expensive than a divorce.

So is it any surprise that participants in the report tend to find the most value in the vendors who build the best customer relationships? Crisis management through maintenance and proactive support is particularly crucial to a happy radiation therapy “marriage.”

The Dangers of Downtime

In the software world, unexpected downtime can wreak havoc on a provider’s day. Clinicians often have to create some workarounds or even revert to paper until the system is back online. Frustration rises as efficiency drops.

When a radiation therapy machine stops working, the work doesn’t just slow down—it comes to a screeching, panic-inducing halt. The providers have no choice but to try to move to another machine (so long as the treatment plan matches) or reschedule every appointment. Both options have to be done in already-packed calendars. For a cancer patient who has been prescribed radiation therapy and has already anticipated having it or who has traveled for several hours, a cancelled appointment can throw the entire treatment plan into disarray for both the patient and the provider.

This reality naturally leads many providers to search for the product that goes down the least. Certain machines appear to be slightly more reliable than others. However, every vendor’s technology is subject to occasional downtime. The ways that vendors work with customers to get the machines working again are what truly differentiate radiation therapy vendors from each other.

Components of Proactive Support

Service is critical to building relationships, and for radiation therapy providers, the following keys are what make a vendor’s support effective:

  1. Quick Responses. Obviously, the priority with downtime is to fix it fast. Customers need their vendors to reply immediately to cries for help and get support personnel on-site right away. This can be difficult for those who have Accuray, who seems to have a short supply of field support.
  2. Easy Access to Parts. Accuray retains tight control over their machine parts. This creates more work for technicians, who must take time to acquire necessary parts before repairing the equipment. Varian and Elekta, on the other hand, allow customers to keep spare parts on-site, thereby enabling speedier solutions.
  3. Dependable Field Technicians. Providers adore technicians who are knowledgeable, experienced, and willing to go the extra mile. I remember one provider telling me, “Our field-service person came and worked all through the night so that we could open again in the morning.” Customers lucky enough to get help from such technicians remain completely loyal to those vendors forever.

When a vendor provides that kind of support, providers grow to trust the vendor. They begin referring to the vendor as a team member, a partner, or even a member of the family. In fact, providers in the Radiation Therapy 2019 report tend to rate the overall performance of a tool higher if they felt that they had a strategic relationship with the vendor. You can see this trend (and a notable provider quote) in the chart below.

overall performance vs strategic relationship

If you are in the market for a new piece of equipment, talk to your closest radiation therapy neighbors. Find out whether they can keep parts on hand, how quickly their vendor’s field-service personnel can get to the area, and how good those personnel are at meeting providers’ needs.

More to Consider

Of course, the service and relationships offered by radiation therapy vendors aren’t the only things that provider organizations should ponder when preparing to buy a new machine; they’ll want to ask many more questions, including the following:

  • Which treatment area(s) do we want to focus on (e.g., brain, spine, or prostate)?
  • Whose technology are we already using?
  • How important is integration with treatment-planning software? Which vendors offer the best integration?
  • Which pieces of equipment do our competitors use? Would it be most advantageous to purchase a solution not offered anywhere else in the area?
  • What is our referral base like? This may be especially important for facilities looking to add a net new product.
  • What is the patient throughput, and how many patients do we need to see per day?

Our 2019 report contains information that will help answer several of these questions, including data on customer-reported treatment-area strengths and integration. I hope that my provider friends will use this report to learn from their colleagues. I also hope that they will remember the importance of finding a vendor that is ready to build a devoted relationship.

I’d like to finish with the following truth shared by psychologist Alicia H. Clark: “So many [people] believe that a lack of problems, or the ability to anticipate and avoid them, is a key to a happy relationship. But in my experience, it’s not so much about avoiding problems as it is about being able to solve them together.”