To be sure, shopping for medical practice software is confusing and frustrating. But physicians no longer have the luxury of avoiding the issue.
The payment process for reimbursements and co-payments from the myriad insurers is so complex that, without technology, it would be almost impossible to track payments accurately. At the same time that reimbursements from third-party payers such as Medicare and HMOs are decreasing, doctors are being pressured to be more efficient. Medical offices need a computer just to track where receivables might be falling through the cracks, and traditional accounting packages have never been sophisticated enough to accommodate all the third-party vagaries in the practice segment.
There are other benefits of technology in medical offices. The right software can boost efficiency and reduce duplication and errors by enabling both physician and staff to access the same information. This helps avoid discrepancies, and it allows transmission of both lab reports and payment information electronically.
Software can improve patient communication as well as speed up payments. Some software applications potentially reduce staff time by offering patients the opportunity to help themselves via a Web portal where they can schedule appointments, order prescription refills, and view lab results. All of this coordination, in turn, can result in increased patient satisfaction.
But while physicians may see the value in deploying technology, for many of them, technology remains at odds to the way they do their primary work. Medical schools each physicians how to use dialog and observation to diagnose patients, not how to run a computer.
Furthermore, doctors are used to being in a position of knowledge, of being in control of what they do. Not understanding technology can be uncomfortable enough to make them avoid upgrading their office systems.
If technology itself presents a barrier to doctors, the issues and complexities in the medical practice management (MPM) software market segment don’t help either. Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 500 to 1500 programs for MPM alone, not even including electronic medical record (EMR) applications. This fecundity stems not only from the number of specialties within medicine, but also from the regional nature of the market — software developers who may have created, say, packages targeting cardiologists in New England versus developers with packages specifically for cardiologists in California.
Moreover, there is no clear market leader in either MPM or EMR software, which makes it daunting for practices looking for new technology.
Given the challenge of the unstable market and variations in the technology, how do you make a rational purchase decision? First, decide what you need the product to do. We provide a more detailed discussion of features of these applications in The Basics of Medical Practice Management Software.
Physicians, just as any other businesspeople, need to understand the process workflow of everything they and their staff do, and find software that either replicates that process or — better yet — makes it faster or easier.
Don’t yield to your first impulse, which is to hunt for a software system that will exactly duplicate your process. You want to avoid simply digitizing an inefficient, poorly functioning process. Computerizing an important function of your business is also an opportunity to professionalize that function. This requires a lot of up-front work on your part.
So, even before you call in a software vendor, you should first document how your office runs, and then work with your staff to identify places where the process can be made more efficient through software. For instance, there may be a sequence where the office manager checks for an accounting clerk’s work for errors; because software should do this automatically, this step could be removed. You could also eliminate cross-filing of paperwork, because the software database should let you automatically generate different views of the data.
Once you understand your process, and believe it is reasonably capable and efficient, the next step is to see if the software you’re evaluating will support your workflow, or if it can be tailored to support it. You should actually give a vendor’s salesperson an outline of how your practice works, and insist that they show how their software can approximate it.
Read Medical Practice Software: Tips for Success for more information on working with vendors.
Once you choose a product, make sure everyone who will use the application gets good training and a chance to try it out before it goes live with your patient data. Expect the installation and training processes to take time — and expect a payoff in accuracy and efficiency down the line.