Medical practices of all sizes and specialties are in for some significant changes over the next few years as health care enters the world of electronic health records (EHRs). Some audiologists - particularly those without an office staff - already have embraced this new milieu as an opportunity to enhance efficiencies. Others have been slow to respond, for reasons ranging from a perception that it is unaffordable to a concern for the possible disruption that such a conversion might bring.
Fortunately for hearing health care providers, these two concerns need not be concerns at all. Products are now on the market that are quite affordable, both in initial cost and in ongoing commitment. Similarly, any deep-rooted concerns regarding complexity of conversion can be minimized by following the best practices of their colleagues who have discovered ways to make the change-over virtually hassle-free. In fact, all an audiologist needs is Internet access, and they can be off and running.
Converting from paper to an EHR system will make everyone's job easier and more efficient, while eliminating unnecessary duplication of services. For example, through the use of an EHR system, an audiologist can effortlessly exchange information with a primary care physician or other specialists who may be involved in a patient's care. They also can save the time and expense associated with recovering missing patient information; manual printing, scanning and faxing of documents; the physical mailing of entire patient charts; and manual phone communication to verify delivery of traditional communications, referrals and test results.
The best way to start conversion to an EHR system is by choosing a technology and partner that has been certified to allow the audiologist to achieve "meaningful use." Only those that meet this standard are eligible to receive the stimulus money made available through the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009. To attain this designation the technology must meet the following criteria:
- improve care coordination,
- reduce health care disparities,
- engage patients and their families,
- improve population and public health, and
- ensure adequate privacy and security.
Having the correct EHR system in place addresses half the solution. The other half is making sure that the audiologist has the correct ancillary tools, such as a tablet PC, voice recognition and handwriting recognition. If, for example, the practitioner is accustomed to handwriting in charts, then purchasing a tablet PC that allows for writing notes into the system will greatly reduce the chance of failure and make the transition that much easier. So, too, it is imperative that Internet connectivity be constant and high-speed. This is a factor easily forgotten through this process, but imperative to success. If an upgrade is necessary, it is a relatively small investment that will pay big dividends in the long run.
Converting to electronic health records is also a good time to take a look at your practice management system in the spirit of truly integrating your practice. One of the biggest mistakes audiologists and other health care professionals make is remaining married to their existing practice management system while the world around them is changing. Now is the time to put a system in place that allows for the easy tracking of every aspect of practice flow, including calendaring, benefit information and accounting. Simply put, the more an audiologist can do electronically and the more integrated the practice, the higher the likelihood of success.
The final thing that is needed is patience. All change - even good change - comes with an inherent set of frustrations, challenges and hiccups. But if done correctly and patiently, the frustrations can be short-lived. That's why it's important to approach the conversion to EHRs with an understanding that, at first, productivity may drop until the practice gets into the flow of how to enter charts into the system. Therefore, it is best to start by only adding new patients to the electronic system. Then, as productivity and comfort improve, add perhaps every fifth patient and then every third until you are able to confidently move all of your patients into the electronic chart system.
A decade ago, homes didn't have multiple computers, smartphones didn't exist, and "social media" wasn't part of our lexicon. Just as communication technology has influenced every part of our world, it is having a positive influence on the world of health care. Those audiologists who are able to embrace this world with enthusiasm and vigor will find immeasurable benefits and rewards - not only for themselves but, most importantly, for the patients they are devoted to serve.
Brian O'Neill is president and CEO of Office Ally. For more information, go to http://www.officeally.com/.