Physicians who adopt EHRs now can reap benefits

July 1, 2010

If you've been on the fence about purchasing an electronic health record (EHR) for your dermatology practice, it's time to make your move. The federal government has pledged billions of dollars to finance the automation of medical practices. Also working in your favor now are the advances in the technology behind these sytems; today's systems are much better than what you could find just 12 or 18 months ago.

Key Points

If you've been on the fence about purchasing an electronic health record (EHR) for your dermatology practice, it's time to make your move. The federal government has pledged billions of dollars to finance the automation of medical practices.

1. The government's payment program begins soon. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) outlined a series of stimuli to get the economy back on track. While most industries have already enjoyed their portion of stimulus package dollars, the healthcare industry is waiting for Jan. 1, 2011. That's when the first of a series of consolidated bonus payments will be distributed to eligible professionals who successfully use a qualified EHR in a meaningful manner. Available through Medicare (up to $44,000) and Medicaid (up to $63,750), the payments are designed to pay for, or at minimum offset, the cost of an EHR purchase. Although the program is not required, penalties in the form of reduced Medicare payments will begin in 2015.

3. Going green means getting rid of the paper. Maybe environmental friendliness isn't at the top of your priority list, but more and more patients are getting on board the sustainability bandwagon and looking for physicians who are eco-friendly. Consider the mounds of paper that your practice uses every day, let alone the file folders, stickers, plastic outguides, shelving supplies and so on. An EHR will never eliminate all paper, but it will reduce the quantity you use significantly. Putting the spotlight on your efforts to go green and embracing technology may just be the marketing edge you need in today's competitive environment.

4. Labor is cheap for the conversion. Migrating to an EHR requires an investment in managing the transition; consider that each active chart must be converted to an electronic format. Either you do it all at once, or individually, upon each patient's arrival. Both methods - mass conversion and patient-by-patient - require you to hire extra staff to scan and index records. Even though there are signs that the economy is rebounding, unemployment rates still top 10 percent in most communities. The time is right for hiring affordable and skilled staff to help your practice make the transition to an EHR.

5. Newly trained dermatologists don't want paper. Recruiting residents to join your practice will be harder than ever if you haven't surrounded yourself with technology. Unlike prior generations that enjoyed technology as an optional tool, these newly trained dermatologists rely on it. In addition to a recruitment essential, an EHR is an investment in the value of your practice. New physicians aren't interested in buying stacks of paper charts - they want to purchase information. They certainly aren't attracted to practices that don't look capable of keeping up with technology, including those who maintain a staff unfamiliar with automation. Even if you're not interested in using an EHR, getting one - and using it - may be one of the best investments you can make in the future of your practice. If you share in the financial success of your practice as a business entity, weigh an EHR's potential benefits for future practice value and revenue against the certain penalties of staying on the fence.

6. Patient flow can be sustained, not hindered. Perhaps the biggest knock on an EHR by dermatologists is its influence - negative, that is - on their workflow. Although some dermatologists are challenged to see the same volume of patients post-EHR implementation as they did in the days of paper charts, there are ways around those bottlenecks.

If typing is the problem, hire a scribe or use voice recognition software. If you feel like the presence of a computer in the exam room is a barrier to or distraction from communicating with patients, work on positive techniques to engage them. For example, try saying, "Ms. Jones, I'd like to record exactly what you're saying," or, "Let's take a look at your test results together, Ms. Jones." EHR templates that formulate the basis of your documentation are better than ever, allowing more customization and making the technology a better fit with your workflow.

Even if you decide not to use the EHR in the exam room for all patients, the administrative aspects of an EHR can bring another key benefit: a more supportive staff. Instead of looking for pieces of paper - messages, charts and test results - your staff are able to get back to what you hired them to do: help you. Finally, the income you gain from capturing all charges and coding appropriately for the services you perform, over the long run, outweigh any temporary reductions in workflow.

The benefits of an EHR are undeniable for your practice as well as your patients. By taking advantage of the government's bonus payment program for EHR implementation and use, you can put this technology to work sooner rather than later. The potential of reimbursement penalties and lost opportunities for staying on the fence for very much longer could soon add up to a costly bit of indecision.

Elizabeth Woodcock is the principal of Woodcock & Associates and a speaker and writer specializing in practice management. Visit her Web site at http://www.elizabethwoodcock.com/.