Industry Voices—How to ensure your healthcare tech is a help, not a headache

Doctor and patient talking and discussing health treatment while sitting at the desk. Physician pointing into tablet pc.
Vendors will never shy away from telling you they can build whatever you need for the right amount of money. But what use are those big promises if you haven’t even bothered to figure out what it is you really need? (andrei_r/GettyImages)

Technology is our savior.

At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe in the healthcare industry.

Chances are, if you’re reading this you’re like the 70% of respondents from a poll conducted by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) last year who said they’d be investing in new tech in 2019. The number stays relatively consistent most years, meaning most practices are stuck in a cycle of constantly trying to find a new solution to old problems. 

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It’s time you found a way out of this never-ending loop. And it starts with how you approach these problems in the first place.

Most often, the search for tech solutions begins in the form of electronic medical records (EMRs), the digitized version of patient charts that are now used in some form or another by over 85% of office-based physicians.

There was, of course, a great swing toward EMRs starting back in 2009, thanks to the billions in federal funding set aside to subsidize the movement from the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. 

Along with those subsidies came a hope: Maybe this will be the solution to all our problems.

Today, with the movement toward value-based care, you may find yourself living out the same process all over again. This time it's in the emerging world of popHealth, the open-source software that promises to help automate population health reporting that can then be used to measure quality benchmarks.

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Once again, it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking this new tech will be your savior. This is the solution that will help usher you into the age of value-based care, not to mention take care of all those little inefficiencies that make running a business so time consuming. 

But your tech won’t change anything until you start changing these things about yourself and your practice.

Put process first

Process should be the driver of the tool, not the other way around.

In a world as varied and simultaneously as regulated as healthcare, providers need to take stock of what their process actually is and where they hope tech can best help them execute.

A physician at an independent practice, for example, has to decide whether they’ll take ownership of the process or delegate. They have to envision the desired outcome and then work backward to get there.

Vendors will never shy away from telling you they can build whatever you need for the right amount of money. But what use are those big promises if you haven’t even bothered to figure out what it is you really need?

Accept some level of standardization

Now there’s a dirty word: standardization.

It might not be what you want to hear. And I’m not saying that every patient can be treated the same. But there are evidence-based practices which can create broad standards of care. Those standards can then reduce volatility and increase efficiency, both of which will be critical in the coming years and decades.

It also goes both ways: Your IT or technology vendor must accept some level of variation as well. You can’t create a cookie-cutter model for medical treatments, but you can meet somewhere in the middle.

Get the right people in the room

Maybe you feel like you’re not getting what you need out of your EMR. But have you stopped to ask everyone else who’s using it?

While you’re considering finding a new solution—which can take anywhere from six months to a year at a minimum to get installed and integrated—perhaps other members of your staff or your colleagues are actually seeing huge benefits.

This is like a subset of figuring out the process before you decide on a tool, but in this case it’s about stakeholders. What a primary care physician needs may be different than what her or his support staff needs. 

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You may find that you in fact don’t need to install a new technology, you just need to go back to your vendor with that list of needs to optimize what you already have.

For larger groups, this goes beyond C-level executives. For independent providers, it goes beyond just you. Before you can ensure you have the right solution in place, you first have to have everyone on the same page about what you need it to do.

Own your part in creating the headache

I hear it all the time: We’re too busy, and we don’t have the resources to spend all this extra time picking the right systems. 

The fact is that one way or another you’re going to spend the time. It’s just a matter of whether you spend it at the beginning of the process or when things have already started to go wrong. 

And make no mistake: That time on the front end is worth it. Technology can make your life easier. 

To use just one of a million possible examples, take the case of the dermatology practice that changed EMRs late last year. Before the change, patients weren’t learning of the cost of their prescriptions until the moment they hit the pharmacy counter, resulting in sticker shock that cause them to change or abandon their drugs and also hurt the reputation of the 50-employee practice writing the scripts. Finding an EMR with a pricing tool that allowed the practice to avoid that delayed shock resulted in happier patients and the promise of much higher retention.

Technology exists to help you help yourself. And while it may not be your savior, you can certainly save yourself a lot of headache by using it in the right way.

Andrew Swanson is the vice president of Industry Insights at MGMA.

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