For Practices, Bridging the Health IT Technology Gap Does Not Mean Starting From Scratch

Sean Morris
Sean Morris

Given the recent focus on the value of health IT (HIMSS recently asked those of us covering the space to respond to its importance; you can see my response here: HIMSS Asks: What is the Value of Health IT?), the topic remains an intriguing one. With ever-present changes to the landscape, we’re in the midst of major and continual upheaval about how technology can serve, yet improve care quality and outcomes.

The use of electronic health records, for example, continues to permeate the space. But even as pervasive as the technology is — during 2006 through 2013, the percentage of physicians using any EHR system increased 168 percent, from 29.2 percent in 2006 to 78.4 percent in 2013, according to the CDC.  Nearly half of physicians (48.1 percent) were said the be using the more comprehensive “basic system” by 2013, up from 10.5 percent from 2006, but that doesn’t mean the solutions are completely meeting the needs of physicians.

That said, I asked Sean Morris, director of sales for Digitech Systems, for some perspective. He’s worked in health IT for more than 20 years. He agrees with me, that penetration of EHRs remains less than 50 percent. Even so, as physicians have moved aggressively toward the technology, in large part because of meaningful use, not all of the systems that have been deployed are working as expected.

“EHRs were the new shiny thing and everybody wanted to chase after them,” Morris said. “But issues came up as people began to evaluate and use the technology. They discovered that there’s really no bridge from the information stored in EHRs charts and other records outside the EHR. They need to bring it together without killing their practice.”

As the age of EHRs begins to fade past its prime and as practices begin to evaluate second generation solutions, Morris said history is likely going to repeat itself unless practices begin to deploy solutions that help them use all of the data stored in the records.

Morris said that in many cases, current EHRs don’t actually need to be replaced, rather built upon.

Many practices, he said, are evaluating new EHRs because they feel what they have doesn’t allow them to meet the need of expected growth. Actually, though, they might be better served keeping their current products and implementing bridge technology, a bolt-on data platform that integrates with their EHRs and helps them streamline data and information collection.

“Recently we’ve brought forth a new product that will streamline patient intake with an e-forms component that lets practices of any size put patient forms online so that patients can log in ahead of time. A copy of the form ends up in patient chart and is integrated into the patient record in the EHR,” Morris said, as an example of one solution that may solve many problems. “We began examining what we can do to streamline workflow even more, and this product seems to focus patient visits on actual care.”

One of Digitech Systems’ clients, All Island Gastroenterology, in Malverne, New York, purchased an EHR but still had bunches of paper sitting around. Using Digitech Systems’ enterprise content management solution, the practice now captures the data in the paper files, scans it and digitizes the information by putting images of it into the electronic health record.

Morris said All Island now has a more efficient workflow within practice, and a more efficient practice, ultimately helping it be able to accommodate more patients.

Practices are wrestling with multiple repositories of information – scheduling, billing, records –but depending on the practice and their add-on technologies, many still must bridge the gap between the technology and tons of information sitting in filing cabinets or storage. By bridging this information gap and making all the practice’s information digital, many may be able to re-evaluate their efforts and decide that they don’t need to start over.

The bridge to information will be needed quite soon, too, he said. As the ACA kicks in and provides more access to individuals who previously had no coverage, there’s going to be more patients accessing healthcare. Even as the industry moves to one based on quality, rather than quantity, Morris said practices and health systems are still going to have to perform quicker and more efficient than they do now, as well as than they have in the past, even if they use the latest, most sophisticated EHRs.

“The requirements placed on individuals (to maintain coverage) will push more people who are seeking out healthcare than ever seen before and lots of practices are actually seeing that, seeing their patient volumes increasing,” Morris said.

As such, patients expect there to be fewer bottlenecks. “If I have to wait (at the doctor’s office), I’m less likely to return. If focus and attention is on me, I’m more likely to come back. The sheer volume of people is another driver forcing practices to look to tech. Customers will vote with their wallets. Practice that have not looked at tech and cannot provide good solid outcomes will see patients voting with their wallets.”

Vendors, though, in particular, will continue to see a great deal of opportunity in the market, as is evident by the move of so many into the space. There is more money than ever in healthcare, and technology and software firms want to dip their toes in the water, if not take a complete dive into the pool.

“For vendors, the opportunity is massive. We look for opportunity to help and solve their problems,” Morris said. “Focus on what’s important to physicians: They want to know how they can serve their patients best. Vendors solving their problems and helping to provide the best patient outcomes are sitting in a great spot.”

For example, at Digitech Systems, he said the focus when developing a product is on the feedback received from customers and the user experience. “If they can’t figure out how to use the product in five to seven minutes, there’s a problem.”

Additional priorities for his firm include reducing administrative back office tasks and streamlining the patient in-take process.

If practices are not able to do this, they’ll likely be met with few options: close, sell (go do something else) or implement more technology and learn how to use it to create efficiencies. They’ve got the find a way to accelerate their processes without sacrificing patient care.

“We have to make information available to physicians so they can provide better patient outcomes. That’s the focus in what our technology delivers. Get rid of the cumbersome back-office admin practices.”

If you’re a tech vendor and with back-office products, it may not be so sexy, but you’re in a good position right now, and have been for a little while, Morris said, as those solutions are likely the next generation of health IT to really make a difference in helping physicians get back to work and improve care outcomes.

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