Just what is it about OB/GYN Associates of Northwest Alabama that sets it apart?
I labored over that question (pardon the pun) as I sat down to report on this year's Practice of the Year competition — an annual event we introduced in these pages in 2002 to give our readers a chance to share their success stories.
It wasn't just that this practice has achieved significant, measurable gains since introducing an EMR in 1999 — or even that they were one of the first offices in a "technologically infantile" region to automate, according to executive director, Charlie Lathram. This year, 52 percent of Practice of the Year applicants had similar success stories with their EMRs and told us about them in detail. It's great to hear that the promises of technology are generally real and the results tangible. But it's not really news like it was a few years ago.
It wasn't that the group operates under a physician productivity and compensation formula that one of the contest judges called "the hardest management accounting tool to use but the best at ferreting out true costs and allocating them to doctors." Lathram likes the formula because it "gives physicians a choice in the way they practice." And Philip Wakefield, a physician who's been with the group for 19 years, insists it has instilled in the doctors "a better sense of cooperation and a better sense of each other's needs." Not only that, says Wakefield, "It encourages everyone to see their share of indigent patients without fear of monetary loss."
And it wasn't even that the practice sends a single rose to each patient in the hospital who's just had a baby. A nice touch, to be sure — coincidentally, runner-up practice River Rose OB does this as well.
What ties all the pieces together is a sense that OB/GYN Associates of Northwest Alabama simply does a terrific job at anticipating and responding to what its patients need — perhaps even before the patients know or ask.
Case in point: the group's Web site, www.obgyn-associates.org. It's got online appointment scheduling, online prescription refills, and all the pre-visit forms a patient would need, including consent for use and disclosure of health information and a detailed patient privacy statement to meet HIPAA requirements. There's the option to ask questions online about insurance coverage, or to translate information on the site into Spanish.
For now, Lathram says, traffic to the site is light and many features go practically unused. "We have patients in college in Tennessee, Mississippi — as far away as Virginia. For them to be able to request a prescription refill without making a long-distance phone call is very helpful," he says. The point is, just because the majority of its patients aren't Web savvy doesn't mean the site has to reflect that. The practice created a site with lots of patient-friendly features, rather than slapping together a bare-bones site that's not of much use to anyone.
In response to patient requests, the practice is following a slow, deliberate plan to add cosmetic procedures like laser hair removal and vein therapy to its list of services. "We have been hesitant, just from a time standpoint, because we're so busy in the practice of OB/GYN medicine," says Lathram. "And we wanted to do it in a way that didn't 'commercialize' medicine." Since purchasing the laser last January, the practice has been training its nurses, and Lathram feels they're sufficiently up to speed to start taking clients.
"We're starting to market [it] by giving discounts on the procedures for hospital nurses — to build clientele we may not have currently, but also to build good working relationships with the staffs of both hospitals we work with. And we have a segment of our [patients] who go to surrounding cities to have these procedures done. I think it will justify itself financially," he says.
For incoming patient calls and any other situation in which a patient needs an answer, "We have things that patients typically need available so we can answer that patient call the first time. We realize that our patients have busy lives and we like to provide alternatives to save time and administrative burdens along the way," says Lathram. "Patients can work us into their schedules, and not the other way around."
It's In the Bag
When it comes to the needs of its mothers-to-be, the practice really delivers the goods. It's called a Special Delivery Bag, and it's given to each patient at her first obstetric visit — a four-pound canvas tote bag filled with educational materials and discount coupons for everything on a Mom's list: maternity clothes, baby clothes and shoes, diapers, furniture, formula, vitamin samples, a safety kit with light socket covers — even a voucher for baby's first birthday cake.
Chief financial officer Lynda Rohling brought the idea to the practice from her days working in a hospital. More than 100 local and national businesses participate, and all staff members are asked to try to bring one or two new businesses on board. And when things slow down a bit in the office, say, on Friday afternoons, small groups of staff members gather to assemble the bags. "With six people working for about two hours, we can put 100 to 120 bags together," says Rohling.
"Lamaze provides a world of information [for the bag] in both English and Spanish," she adds. "Enfamil, the formula company, provides a book called Baby Grows, which shows the growth from conception to birth. The mothers ask for this book."