Why Your Medical Practice Should Go Digital

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Digitizing your medical practice isn’t just a matter of convenience. It’s the law.

In case you missed it, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires all medical practices to use electronic medical records (or EMR) now, or risk losing up to 1% of Medicare reimbursements. And if you want to get even more high tech, the government offers incentives to move to electronic health records (or EHR) – the cloud sourced medical records that allow doctors everywhere to access patient information.

Whichever you choose, going digital is not a quick process, and requires a lot of planning, time, and extra consideration. But once it’s done, you’ll wonder how you ever got by before.

Why Digitize Your Medical Practice

Aside from the federal law, it’s going to make your practice far more efficient, and, hopefully more profitable.

Your staff will benefit because they will no longer need to walk to a file room, pull out charts, and search through them for relevant information. Everything can be pulled up in seconds, making their first contact with a patient an efficient one.

In addition, things like rescheduling appointments, prescription refills, outside correspondence and referrals can be done this way as well, meaning your staff can spend more time interacting with patients or assisting you with your practice. This time savings also allows for more appointments to be scheduled, since there’s less legwork involved. And more appointments, of course, mean more revenue for your medical practice.

Patients appreciate when their doctor’s office goes digital not only because of the convenience, but the added efficiency at the front desk means shorter waiting times for them as well.

Aside from these increased efficiencies, EMRs also mean that doctors don’t have to run into the office to check a chart when they get an emergency call. It also means they can work on things like chart notes, special messages and refill reviews from home instead of having to go into the office. And at the end of the workday, there’s considerably less paperwork to be done, which means getting home earlier.

Things to Consider Before Going Digital

So between the advantages of going digital and the federal mandate, you’re pretty sold, right? But there are a lot of things you need to think about before changing over your medical practice.

First, think about the current state of your practice. If you’re struggling financially, then a switch like this will only make matters worse. Similarly, if the staff you have now is going to be cut back or switched out, don’t waste time and money training them on EMRs. You’ll just need to do it again.

Also, if your practice already feels understaffed and overwhelmed, now may not be the time to switch. Much like with money, the time investment may only make matters worse. You’ll also want to see if your current charts are ready to be converted. EMRs won’t magically organize an unorganized office, so get those sorted before contacting a vendor.

Speaking of vendors, there are plenty out there to choose from, all offering very different products and levels of service. Some have an initially low setup price but make up for it with high support fees. Others won’t train you on-site, while others will charge you travel expenses for their trainer. You should also find out how many people they will train, and if new employees will receive training at no or little cost. Like with any vendor, never go with the first one, and make sure you’re getting the best deal for your specific practice.

How Much Information Need to Be Converted?

Obviously, you need as much relevant information on your patients as you can get. But their immunizations from middle school? Probably not.

First, you have a couple of options for data conversion. You can scan the old paper charts as pdf files, making them accessible by PC or tablet. This is a relatively quick method – assuming you have a good scanner – but makes the charts just as difficult to search as the old paper ones.

The other option is to input everything into EMR files directly. This can take hours for some more complicated patients, but it will ultimately save time.

You should consider how much information needs to be converted. Many practices enter basic, current information – like allergies, active medications, and active problems – then keep paper charts on hand if extra info is needed. This is a good option if you don’t have a lot of time, but may prove inefficient in emergency situations.

And unless your staff has a lot of downtime – or you want to pay them overtime – you may want to look into outsourcing the data entry or hiring temporary employees. Some vendors actually offer this service, sometimes at an extra charge. But it may be worth paying for this service in order to maintain a motivated workforce.

Finally, don’t change over anyone’s records until their first visit after the switch to EMR. The last thing you want to do is spend hours transferring data for a patient who has decided to switch doctors. So while it may be frustrating to still have all those files sitting around the office, it will save a lot of time in the long wrong to only switch active patients.

It’s More Than Just Patient Records

Ultimately, the conversion typically takes about 12 weeks between training and file transfer, so make sure you’ve got a plan in place for the few months while the conversion is taking place. Phasing the process in is typically what’s recommended.

Past that, a lot of other things go into EMRs besides patients’ medical history.

Most importantly to you are billing and accounts receivable, having a record of the patient’s insurance, payments and outstanding balance will streamline your collections process and save your staff countless hours of chasing down insurance companies and Medicare claims.

You also should have some sort of correspondence feature, both for in-house messages about patents and for external documents that need attention.

Your EMRs also need a scheduling function for appointments, a workflow for lab results, and refill request processing capabilities.

The prospect of changing your practice over to EMRs might seem daunting. And while you may experience some transition pains, switching to digital records should improve efficiency and ultimately benefit your medial practice.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.

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