When it comes to outsourcing many complex professional services, this type of work should not be viewed as a mere commodity, say researchers at Harvard Business School, reporting in the journal , Organization Science. Instead, they say, cultivating important person-to-person relationships with the vendor of outsourced services can improve efficiency and even the quality of services delivered, especially in health care, where outsourcing is on the rise.

Teleradiology is the reading and interpretation of CT, MRI, X-ray, and other diagnostic images. Increasingly, medical institutions outsource this work to licensed experts located across town or around the world. The researchers found that the more an outsourced radiologist works with a particular hospital, the more efficient he or she becomes reading that hospital’s scans. In addition, that efficiency is not immediately translatable to other customers.

The researchers studied data from a major provider of outsourced teleradiology services in the US, with more than 1,400 client sites, mainly hospitals and radiology group practices. All 97 radiologists in the study were board certified and licensed to practice radiology in the US.

The data set included 2.7 million scans read by the radiologists for 1,431 customers over a 30-month period. The scans were analyzed according to the reading radiologist, the hospital or practice it came from, the anatomical area depicted, and the length of time it took to read.

Results showed that experience between a radiologist and a customer paid off. A radiologist's experience reading scans from the same customer and involving the same anatomical area was found to produce the largest increase in efficiency, with an additional 1,000 cases of cumulative experience increasing a radiologist's subsequent weekly output by 7.4 percent.