Communications and Technology

Communications and Technology

The medical industry covers a wide range of practice sizes and specialties, but technology is increasingly becoming a common denominator, helping physicians, mid-level providers, nurses, assistants and support staff deliver better care more efficiently.

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 80 percent of office-based physicians use some kind of electronic medical record (EMR) system. In addition, for many practitioners, portable computers and mobile devices are becoming as commonplace as thermometers and stethoscopes.

Growing Tech Needs

The growing adoption of medical technology is being driven by several factors. In addition to providing the best care, physicians with practices of all sizes spend a lot of time dealing with fiscal and organizational protocols. Receivables, co-pays, reimbursement, certification – this brand of jargon becomes routine language for the entrepreneurial medical professional.

The lucky ones have managerial support to untangle challenging issues, while others rely on willing spouses, receptionists and assistants. Responsibility for financial, staffing and administrative chores, coupled with patient care duties, may fall mostly to the practice owner.

Each person walking through the door, for instance, generates considerable paperwork, including charts, invoices, insurance claims and other related records.

To meet the challenges of managing and expanding their practices, a growing number of physicians are relying on high-tech tools, with scheduling, billing, claims management, prescription tracking, test orders and results, and clinical notes comprising common applications.

Although the long-awaited "paperless office" remains a ways off for most medical practitioners, a variety of integrated clinical and management programs and software suites can improve productivity and practice revenue by reducing the amount of time spent on administrative tasks.

Digital Practice Management

Technology and digital communications make it possible for medical practitioners to create, store and access their clinical data – and manage the business aspects of their practice - much more efficiently.

Today's physicians can take advantage of products such as practice management software that can handle a wide range of front office, operatory and back office functions.

While capabilities may vary among specific suites, some features to look for include:

  • Patient (and staff) scheduling
  • Treatment plans
  • Digital x-rays, and image management
  • Revenue projections and collection by day or month
  • Billing and insurance claims
  • Supply management and ordering
  • Email newsletter templates and online marketing support

Popular EMR systems include eClinicalWorks, McKesson, Cerner , Allscripts, athenahealth, Epic and many others. By clearing more time for actually practicing, doctors can improve the volume and quality of care they deliver.

Making the Right Choice

Healthcare providers would do well to conduct careful research before selecting practice management software or EMR systems.

It's helpful, for instance, to identify the practice's needs by talking with partners and staff. Experts also suggest consulting colleagues with similar operations and disciplines to ascertain what works effectively for them.

Many programs target individual specialties; a family practitioner may have different priorities than a cardiologist. When possible, it's always a good idea to request demonstrations of several products to compare features and ease-of-use. For online subscription services, most vendors offer trial memberships.

When making a purchase, consider the following:

  • Who will be using the software?
  • Does the program allow for practice expansion (e.g., addition of another provider or office)?
  • Will the software allow access from off-site locations?
  • Can the system field scheduling changes and adjustments?
  • Does the program recognize all applicable diagnosis and procedure codes utilized in the practice?

Go for software products that multitask across systems and are compatible with existing programs and hardware. Some packages offer productivity features including bookkeeping and accounting, patient information management, multi-provider scheduling, electronic faxing and electronic prescriptions.

Tablet PCs

The latest generation of tablet PC offers touch-screen data entry and retrieval, and their small size makes them a welcome addition to often-crowded exam rooms.

A tablet PC enables physicians to take notes via a virtual or physical keyboard, or by using digital pens directly on the screen and into practice management suites. Practitioners accustomed to jotting notes on charts often find it easier to record and view information on tablets.

Even more important is the tablet's potential for patient communication and education. Practitioners can use these devices to share results, such as x-ray images, when discussing treatment options with patients.

Similarly, patient education software can explain medical disorders and provide illustrations about the potential effects of leaving a condition untreated.

This chair-side consultation allows practitioners to collaborate with patients on treatment plans and often generates higher revenue by promoting greater acceptance of treatment proposals.

Because they are completely functional laptops, tablets allow users to access electronic record keeping, word processing or any other type of software. Like smartphones, tablet PCs allow secure, wireless connection to desktops, EMR systems, private practice servers and other devices.

Smartphone Apps

Physicians who wish they could take their practices with them wherever they go can pretty much have things their way. Communication technology continues to spawn mobile gadgets that allow practitioners to stay in touch with their practice and patients, and to review patient files from virtually anywhere.

Smartphones can accommodate a multitude of software products geared to medical professionals:

  • Mobile medical reference guides for the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android platforms provide access to information on specific drug/narcotic products, interactions, dosage particulars, pricing and more. Leading manufacturers such as QxMD and Epocrates Rx have designed the software to provide continuously updated information and search capabilities.
  • Patient data management and charge capture. These mobile software products permit medical professionals to access patient information and backend data from the hospital, home, or anywhere in the field.
  • Digital image viewing software allows physicians to view patient x-rays and other diagnostic visual data from any location.
  • Dictation programs allow healthcare providers to record patient encounters outside of the office (such as in clinics or emergency situations).

Security: Keeping Patient Data Confidential

With so much sensitive information stored in smartphones and tablet PCs, it's not surprising that the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) has raised concerns around patient privacy and security. In response, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has established guidelines regarding the use of mobile devices in the work place.

Practitioners should:

  • Provide proper storage facilities for devices and accessories.
  • Monitor password selection, encryption and use.
  • Establish procedures for reporting lost or stolen devices.
  • Enforce all rules regarding proper use of office and mobile appliances.