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Best I.T. Practices for Small Medical Practices

BU009454By Chris Sullivan

Many small and midsize healthcare providers are interested in the advantages offered by information technology, but find it difficult to move forward with actual deployment. Some fear they don’t have the in-house expertise to implement and manage the technology on an ongoing basis. Others believe they do not have the time or money to make such projects happen. But small healthcare offices can significantly grow their practice, ease workflow and improve the patient experience by adopting solutions, like electronic medical records or a server designed specifically for small businesses.

To overcome the challenges faced by practices, technology vendors and physicians are continuously working together to develop new and innovative solutions that meet these needs. These solutions are cost-effective, often take advantage of existing technologies, and are designed specifically with smaller healthcare practices in mind. However, the implementation of technology can seem daunting and costly to the practices that lack the staff and financial resources of large healthcare institutes. Thus, adoption suffers and healthcare remains far behind other industries in the adoption of technology.

The reality is that every practice has different needs that can be easily met through information technology, whether implementing a sound infrastructure in order to grow the practice, adding remote capabilities so employees can access patient files while away from the office, or electronically storing files to save room and reduce costs.

And, while some practices are early adopters of tablet PCs and enjoy a paperless office, and others use just a basic PC, there are many areas of technology investment small practices can look at, regardless of their current implementations.

IT Infrastructure

Before small practices — or any size practice, for that matter — can think about effectively growing their business or investing in sophisticated technologies such as an electronic medical record, they need to ensure they have the most appropriate IT infrastructure in place. For most small practices, a server solution, flexible enough to accommodate growth yet developed with a small practice in mind, will provide the infrastructure needed.

The emphasis on future growth here is important. As technology is ever-evolving, to stay competitive practices must implement a base solution that can support system upgrades and software add-ons in the future.

In fact, many small practices today are turning toward these all-in-one server solutions that not only provide the basis for a flexible infrastructure capable of handling future growth, but also address other key business needs, such as going paperless, security and government compliance. For example, a Maryland-based physical therapy clinic was able to increase productivity by 40 percent, open a satellite office, and increase the number of patients seen by 30 percent – simply by deploying a single server solution.

Going Paperless

Paper-based processes are one of the biggest productivity wasters in healthcare. A significant amount of time is lost in manually scheduling appointments, handwriting patient notes, filing charts, faxing documents to hospitals and insurance companies, and ensuring patient files are adequately protected to prevent HIPAA violations. Further, the costs spent on paper as well as the space needed to store rows of filing cabinets can be significant.

There are different solutions that practices can turn to in order to meet paperless goals. Some practices are able to go paperless as they upgrade their IT infrastructure with a server solution, or others achieve the paperless route through electronic medical records.

The physical therapy practice mentioned above actually reduced its paper spend by 75 percent and got rid of its fax machines – employees now fax PDF documents directly from their computers.

Security and Privacy of Information

Government mandates, such as HIPAA, are important factors set in place to ensure patient safety, satisfaction and privacy are met. They require confidentiality, integrity and availability of electronically protected health information, and are inherently important to patient safety.

Therefore, as practices look to adopt new technologies, it’s critical to ensure that the technology not only fits in with the practice’s privacy and security strategy, but also that it helps ease the process.

Many practices find that as they go paperless, their ability to meet stringent government guidelines and safely store patient information is drastically improved. At the most basic level, going paperless allows practices to protect patient information from everyone — even cleaning services and construction crews that are sometimes working late at night and in the office alone.

Some solutions even offer enforced network updates and server protection features, such as automatic tracking of staff members who have accessed a patient’s record, to ensure an extra layer of security exists, and automatic updates that make it easier to manage and protect data.

Mobility

Providing accurate, high quality care is critical. Practitioners need to be confident in their diagnoses, treatments and assessments, but they also need to be efficient. Running mobile applications designed specifically for healthcare professionals can both improve care and enhance productivity by helping physicians stay on top of e-mails and appointments while on-the-go, quickly research drugs and trials and even interpret lab test results.

In fact, one physician practice that specializes in wound care and treatment was able to reduce the number of hospitalizations by 90 percent after it implemented a mobile treatment program that allows for better collection and management of care data. And by providing employees with mobile phone devices, the clinic estimates it saves more than $1,000 annually per clinical staff member.

Additionally, going mobile provides an opportunity for the care provider to stay relevant – and ultimately competitive – in today’s digital world. The Millennial Generation has been raised with text messaging, instant messaging, e-mailing and social networking, and expects to use these forms of communication in most circumstances. These days, it’s almost easier for patients when providers can create automated text messages that remind them to take their medications or prompt them to remember upcoming appointments.

Mobile functionality can also help practice members effectively share information by ensuring real-time communication via talk, text message and e-mail.

Virtual Communications

Virtual communications can increase effective communication not only between staff members, but also between the patient and physician. For practices that have or are opening remote locations, virtual communications cut down on travel costs and time. For instance, staff members often need to join meetings or training sessions in other offices to ensure that practices are running efficiently and effectively and to get updates on new medical developments, but travel for these meetings can be expensive and difficult to fit in between patients. By using virtual communications, physicians and staff members can join meetings remotely via conference calls, desktop sharing and video chats. Furthermore, for those who can’t join virtual meetings in real time, meetings can be recorded and viewed later, leaving more time to spend with patients.

Virtual communication between the physician and patient essentially means that they don’t have to be in the same location. Physicians can assess patients while out of town, right in the comfort of the patient’s own home. These virtual visits can be especially beneficial to check in on a patient’s post-treatment care regimes, leading to improved care and reduced acute-care costs, increased revenue for the practice, and patient satisfaction and retention.

Remote Access

Whether mobile or via the Web – many practices are also starting to look into offering employees remote access so that they can access patient files while on the road or from home. Some feel that physicians will be encouraged to take on more patients during the day if they know they can work on documents at home, while others look to provide remote access to increase employee work-life balance.

What’s Next?

As time progresses, more and more small providers will be looking for new and innovative technology solutions that will help them stay relevant and competitive. Whatever the right course of action is for your healthcare practice, just remember that technology doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, not only does it help better meet the requirements set forth by the government, technology can save money, increase efficiency and improve the overall patient experience at the point of care.

Chris Sullivan is National Director of Health Provider Solutions, U.S. Health and Life Sciences, for Microsoft.

One comment

  1. This is a great, comprehensive list. The only thing I would disagree with is that small practices should have to manage and maintain their own servers. The reality is that physicians should be in the business of avoiding as many IT headaches as possible.

    Increasingly, many practices are turning to cloud-based practice management systems which offload many of the common complexities associated with hosting your own data.

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