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It may not be too long before patients will come into a physician’s reception area and insert their "smart card" into a slot that verifies their health information and tells them when there’s an empty examination room, says Randall Killian, MS, MBA, executive vice president of the National Association of Managed Care Physicians in Glen Allen, VA.
The physician will walk in with a wireless computer device on which he or she accesses the patient’s medical record. At the end of the visit, the information will be automatically relayed to the health plan for payment and entered into the electronic medical record.
If the patient has a chronic illness, the computer will prompt the physician to institute the disease management protocol and will flash an error message if the plan of care isn’t within the approved guidelines. The computer also will automatically alert physician if the patient needs a mammogram, a flu shot, or a retinal eye examination.
"That’s the future. The technology is available for it right now," Killian comments.
Technology still has a way to go before a physician office can be fully automated, adds Killian who describes some technology offered by vendors today as "trying to build airplanes in the air." Practitioners who want to flourish in the future should nevertheless be looking at adapting technology for their practice.
In the meantime, there are other ways that technology, combined with the Internet, can help improve your practice. Here are two:
• Claims-related transactions.
Physician practices are learning that the amount of time spent on hold with the insurance companies and faxing and mailing documents can be sliced to a fraction by doing it over the Internet, says Sandy Lutz, health care analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dallas, and author of the firm’s HealthCast 2010 E-Health Quarterly, a newsletter covering future trends in health care.
"We found that physicians are seeing real productivity gains from handling claims-related transaction on the Internet. We’re seeing real examples of that happening." Lutz says.
There are up to 10 claims-related tasks that can be done on the Internet in a matter of seconds, Lutz points out. Among them are checking patient eligibility, finding out co-pay requirements, checking claim status, finding out referral information, and in some cases making referrals, she says.
According to Lutz, research by Pricewaterhouse Coopers shows that conducting claims-related functions on the Internet increases staff productivity, reduces claims errors, increases the percentage of clean claims, and reduces accounts receivables.
"Physicians are going to start to realize that the Internet is something real they can use. There has been a lot of hype and promises that weren’t realized in the past but the benefits are starting to become more concrete," Lutz says.
• Communication with patients.
"Physicians have got to start understanding that they can make use of the Internet in their practice by providing information for patients, for office functions such as medical record keeping, and for prescription writing. Otherwise, they are going to be left in the dust," says William F. Jessee, MD, president and chief executive officer the Medical Group Management Association, in Englewood, CO.
Patients are interested in scheduling appointments, finding out laboratory results, and having prescriptions refilled over the Internet, says John Knapp, JD, a health law attorney with Cozen and O’Connor in Philadelphia.
"We are well into the age of computer access. This means that doctors will have to think more and more about doing as other businesses do and making it convenient for patients to access electronically," Knapp says.
"Savvy physicians are going to start setting up Web sites and maintaining them to create a value-added environment for their medical practice."
Physicians are going to be under pressure to provide Internet links so patients can learn more about their medical conditions or drugs that are prescribed for them. "We’re already starting to see physicians setting up mechanisms for e-mail interchanges that allow patients to ask questions and get answers by e-mail. Really savvy doctors offices are going to use processes like broadcast e-mail to keep up the relationship with patients," Knapp adds.
For instance, you can e-mail your patients reminders for appointments, bulletins and medical alerts, or a reminder to schedule an appointment for a checkup. "Some physicians used to send out post cards. Now they can communicate electronically," Knapp adds.
If you want to move in that direction, here are some tips:
• Take the time to acquaint yourself with today’s technology and how it can benefit your practice.
• Prepare a budget for upgrading your computer software and hardware to take advantage of the technology boom.
• Make sure someone in your office is up to speed on Internet access.
• Consider investing in high-speed Internet access, such as a DSL line or cable modem for your office.
"This is the kind of investment that will really pay off for physicians," Lutz says.