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Embracing new technologies can help a practice unplug from the fax machine.
Since the advent of electronic health records systems and federal incentives to install them, the demise of the physical fax machine has been widely predicted. But according to a Consensus survey of administrators, 61% of hospitals and health systems are still using paper fax machines to send and receive patient information, orders, referrals, and other data, including protected health information (PHI). Reasons vary, but ease of use and convenience contribute to the 50% of respondents that indicate that fax will be a valuable method of communication or the dominant method of communication over the next five years.
New rules from CMS require electronic communications among an increasingly diverse range of healthcare providers, including primary care physicians. These rules are designed to increase interoperability and patient-centered care as people transition among providers, acuity levels, and care settings. But since many technology systems aren’t interoperable, the fax machine remains the go-to technology for many healthcare organizations to cut through the clutter and send and receive healthcare documentation and messages. The Consensus survey shows that 44% of respondents plan on improving interoperability in the next year.
Despite continuing efforts by CMS to eliminate faxing, its use will continue until a better way is found. Providers can significantly streamline their fax processes by adopting digital cloud fax technology (DCFT). Digital faxing allows providers to securely receive, review, sign, and send faxes entirely online—without paper or fax machines. It represents a cost-effective method to share documents and records in a HIPAA-compliant manner and falls under the HIMSS category of “foundational interoperability.”
Best-in-class DCFT solutions also integrate seamlessly into providers’ patient management or EHR systems, allowing staff members to process patient PHI transmitted by fax without having to leave their workflow applications.
Here are six reasons to retire the physical fax machine once and for all.
Better patient care
Patients who don’t complete a physician visit within 30 days of hospital discharge are 10 times more likely to be readmitted to the hospital. However, one-third of primary care physicians are never notified that a patient was hospitalized, so it’s no wonder that many patients fail to receive appropriate follow-up care. Interoperability continues to be a major pain-point for many stakeholders. In fact, 68% of respondents indicated they plan on prioritizing and highly prioritizing solutions to improve interoperability in the next year, according to the Consensus survey.
Digital cloud fax technology can close communication gaps by providing a direct link among providers. Electronic faxes can be sent as easily as an email, but with greater security, and can be incorporated into the patient record, making it easier to track patients across care settings. What’s more, emerging solutions use optical character recognition (OCR) artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and natural language processing (NLP) technologies to transform a static fax into dynamic, actionable and searchable data that can be integrated into a patient’s record.
No fax hardware or software
In addition to potential HIPAA security concerns, physical fax machines require paper, toner, dedicated phone lines, maintenance and more. With cloud fax, employees can easily manage their own faxing needs—sending, receiving, distributing, archiving—digitally, either by email or through an intuitive web interface. And the IT team can oversee and adjust the company’s faxing infrastructure via an intuitive administrator portal. Moving to a digital cloud fax solution will significantly reduce the high costs associated with traditional faxing services by eliminating all of the expenses related to operating and maintaining a conventional hardwired fax machine.
Enhanced data security & HIPAA compliance
Although the HIPAA regulations tend to favor faxing over email for transmitting PHI, it’s inaccurate to believe that faxes are HIPAA compliant. Legacy fax environments were created with little or no security precautions in mind. For example, a standard fax transmission over the phone network is not encrypted. Also, the resulting document left on an office fax machine can be viewed or taken by anyone with office access.
Cloud fax eliminates these security vulnerabilities, making faxes with PHI more secure than email. Robust cloud fax solutions are both HIPAA compliant and HITRUST CSF Certified. They encrypt documents both in transit (with 256-bit TLS) and at rest. Documents are password-protected, delivered directly to the in-boxes of authorized personnel, and stored for archiving on servers housed in SSAE 16 SOC 2-secured facilities.
Improved employee productivity
Faxing is one of the least efficient aspects of staff workflow at a physician practice. Even though employees use EHRs to create and update patient records, order requests, and other documents, they often have to leave the system to print out documents and send them by a fax machine, then either securely file or shred those hard copies for security and HIPAA purposes.
With a cloud fax solution, faxing becomes as simple as email. Employees can send or receive faxes securely, using their own fax numbers, without printing or transmitting paper. Automation makes generating cover sheets, filing, distributing to a group, etc., much easier than manual processes.
Reducing the administrative burden can increase throughput, making staff more productive and efficient. A small-scale study focused on the Quadruple Aim — reducing costs while improving population health, patient satisfaction, and staff well-being — showed that small changes can have an oversized impact on productivity in a physician practice. The intervention group was able to offer 48% more patient appointment slots than the control group.
In the Consensus survey, 90% of respondents expressed an interest in AI-enabled patient identification to help improve workflows.
Increased mobility and flexibility
Legacy faxing requires your employees to be standing at the fax machine to send or receive a fax, slowing productivity and responsiveness while also undermining your HIPAA compliance, because PHI faxes can come in any time, day or night.
With digital cloud fax technology, practice staff can receive, review, annotate, send, and digitally sign a fax from anywhere with internet access. Staff can use a web interface, business email, a secure mobile app, or a desktop app to create and send faxes right from their computers. Modern cloud fax solutions offer intelligent fax routing, letting your staff set rules that automatically distribute faxes to the right places and save them to the appropriate folders for archiving.
Streamlined healthcare workflows (with a fax API)
Digital cloud fax technology that includes an enterprise fax API allows staff to access digital fax capability directly from within the workflow applications they use every day, including the patient management or EHR system. This means eliminating the “swivel chair” process of printing, walking to the fax machine, waiting for the transmission to finish, and filing or shredding the paper documents.
In terms of IT maintenance, a fax API gives your practice centralized visibility, robustness, and control over your faxing, which helps with recordkeeping, security, compliance, and business decisions about when to scale your fax capacity up or down.
As if physicians didn’t have enough to do, practices are now tasked with demonstrating their ability to coordinate care on top of their responsibilities around day-to-day care delivery. True data interoperability has long been promised but has yet to come to fruition, frustrating providers and complicating care as patients move among care settings.
Digital cloud fax technologies can streamline clinical workflows and enable more seamless data exchange among providers.
Bevey Miner serves as Global Health IT Strategy/Chief Marketing Officer, Consensus Cloud Solutions, Inc. With over 20 years’ experience in healthcare technology and digital health, she has been instrumental in leading strategy, product management, business development, marketing and commercialization. Bevey has been influential leading innovation in care coordination, patient engagement, population health and interoperability as well as advocating for policy change with federal and state government.
Terry Ciesla is senior vice president of ScribeEMR located in Woburn Massachusetts. www.scribeEMR.com
 Consensus: 2021 Industry Trends Survey for Healthcare (2021)
 Why Your Legacy Fax Infrastructure Costs More Than You Think (eFax Corporate white paper, 2020)