Smart Choice MRI expanding with new Waukesha clinic

By Matt Masterson - Freeman Staff

Nov. 25, 2014

Workers unload the main magnet section of an magnetic resonance imaging machine for the Smart Choice MRI clinic opening at 2005 Silvernail Road in early December.  
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA - Small staffs, cost-effective environments and a single, isolated task. That’s the type of business model which allows Smart Choice MRI to operate as the only flat-rate magnetic resonance imaging center in the country for a cost that’s likely far below what patients are used to seeing in a hospital.

The group - which already has clinics open in Milwaukee, Richfield and Sheboygan - will breach new territory next week when it opens its first Waukesha location.

Rick Anderson - who’s in his first year as Smart Choice’s CEO after a lengthy career in digital health care, including a start-up team which helped create WebMD and, more recently, Sharecare - said each existing location is already running at or near max capacity, which led the company to begin seeking out new markets early this year.

“We always had it on our radar,” he said of Waukesha. “We opened a new location in Richfield and thought, ‘let’s get that up and learn from that.’

The main magnet section of a GE magnetic resonance imaging machine is brought in through a hole cut in the back wall of the new Smart Choice MRI clinic at 2005 Silvernail Road. 
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

“In this location, it is the same general contractor, the same architect, the same trades, all the sub-contractors, the same MRI machine. It’s like if you build a McDonald’s, everything is done the same way. We are learning how to do that.”


One service equals lower overhead costs

While he is still learning to streamline his clinics, Anderson and his team have already found a winning business model - offering MRI service for a flat, all-inclusive price of $600 - thousands less than the $1,500 to $3,000 hospitals often charge for the same procedure.

The difference, Anderson said, is that because Smart Choice provides a single health care service, it can keep its overhead costs - employees, equipment, locations - to a minimum.

The Waukesha location, like the other three clinics, will have less than 10 full-time employees, only two of which would be on duty at any given time. On Monday, a 1.5 Tesla, twin-speed MRI machine from General Electric was delivered and installed into the building at 2005 Silvernail Road.

“In Waukesha in particular, you have got a very sophisticated user base,” said Anderson. “They work at GE, they work at some of these technology companies, so they know to ask the questions. Is it a 1.5 Tesla unit or a .3 - they know the difference. So we had to put,  and wanted to put, the best of the best out here.”

Once open, patients can go to their appointment, get a scan - which is immediately sent off to be read and interpreted by doctors in the teleradiology department at the Cleveland Clinic - and get results sent from there back to their primary physician in about the time it normally takes to go grocery shopping.

“Within an hour of receiving the MRI, your doctor can log into our system and see the results,” Anderson said. “You have best-of-breed physicians involved and best-of-breed technology from GE, which happens to be literally across the street. It is the best of the best, and because it is all we do, we can do it affordably.”

Smart Choice is expected to open four additional Midwest clinics by the end of 2015.

Anderson said part of what drives his business is the dawning of what he calls the “informed consumer.” He compared the current health care system to going to a car dealership, buying a car and getting a bill 90 days later which includes extra bells and whistles the buyer didn’t want or need.

Now, patients are more able to research what they actually need, and as a result, they know what questions to ask doctors and can trim down their bills.

“It is not the hospital’s fault, it’s not (President Barack) Obama’s fault - it is a broken system,” he said. “So if we can, as a company, fix one part of that, we feel like we have done our part.”