MGMA Conference to Showcase Big Tech Trends for 2012

From mobile EHRs to cloud-based services to patient portals, Las Vegas will be brimming with plenty of technology tools to help practices.

It’s been said that what happens in Las Vegas stays there. But with hundreds of exhibitors showcasing state-of-the-art technology products and services at the MGMA11 Annual Conference, you might want to reconsider taking a few things back to your practice.

From mobile EHRs to cloud-based services and patient portals, the Las Vegas Convention Center will be brimming with plenty of technology to help practices in 2012 and beyond.

We asked exhibitors, attendees, and healthcare consultants who work with practices about what this year’s conference will feature, technology wise. Here’s what they believe will steal some of Sin City’s sparkle - and possibly make its way into your practice in the coming months. 

Trend #1: Integrated Solutions
Perhaps the biggest testament to the increasing sophistication of healthcare technology is the sheer number of integrated products on the market today.

In addition to traditional integrated EHR/practice management systems, integrated solutions include everything from EHRs that incorporate patient portals and connect to health data exchanges to practice management/billing software combinations.

One of the biggest reasons integrated solutions have piqued the interest of practices is their promise of time savings, says Rosemarie Nelson, an MGMA healthcare consultant.

“You’re seeing more physicians adopt an EHR and saying ‘I don’t want to get stinking faxes; I want my data to be automatically connected,’” says Nelson. “That kind of integration is really being driven by more and more people using the EHR.”

Trend #2: Cloud-based EHRs
“Cloud computing” - known as “Software as a Service” (SaaS) - is a humungous buzzword in healthcare these days, with the advancement of network technologies and the growth of EHRs.
As such, MGMA show attendees can expect to see more cloud-based offerings in the near future - and in the exhibition hall at MGMA11.

The growth of cloud-based EHRs as an alternate to a client-server, or software-based EHRs, in which data is stored and managed on premises, is spurred by the desire for practices to adhere to CMS’ “meaningful use” EHR incentive, which went into effect in mid-2010.

“Two years ago, meaningful use was out there but there weren’t very many certified vendors,” says Marion Jenkins, a healthcare consultant who heads up QSE Technologies and is a scheduled speaker at MGMA11. “Now everybody’s scrambling to become compliant.”

The interest in cloud-based EHRs is especially prominent with small- to mid-size physician practices that lack full-scale IT staff, Nelson says.

“The cloud is going to be huge,” she says. “Technology is very fast moving. The cloud has lots of appeal because the cloud is backing everything for us, and it costs less in terms of IT management. Under a client-server technology [scenario], if we have one guy that knows how to keep our network going, but we have something that goes beyond his expertise, we have to spend more money to get more services. If we’re using a cloud service, we don’t have to worry about our servers. All we have to make sure is that we’ve got an Internet connection.”

However, many practices are often hesitant to give up management of their own servers and data, says Jenkins, who attributes this in part to security concerns. In recent days, incidents of data loss with Google, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, and Microsoft have put data security issues into the spotlight and raised questions about the safety of using a Web-based service provider to manage your data.

“People are realizing that you can’t just assume putting your data in the cloud solves all of your problems,” says Jenkins. “People are looking at all different options of cloud computing.”
Jenkins says practices might want to explore “private cloud” as an alternative to traditional “public” cloud computing services managed by a remote service provider.

In the private cloud, a practice uses processes like virtualization with a network and server storage system located at its office.

“Virtualization allows you to consolidate most of your servers and scale it down to a manageable platform,” he says.

Trend #3: Tech Tools to Engage Patients
Today’s practices are just as concerned about providing great patient care as 20 years ago. But with looming Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement cuts, plus payers demanding more accountability for care provided, and the widespread use of productivity-oriented financial incentives, practices often feel the pressure to see more patients in a day. The ripple effect: Shorter patient visits.

So how can a practice continue to provide better patient care?

One answer: By using technology tools that encourage patient engagement.

Nelson says getting patients engaged in their own healthcare boosts not only their outcomes, but satisfaction rates, too.

“We see study after study, if you get a patient engaged, it’s going to improve their care,” she says.
One of the tech tools getting a lot of press in the patient engagement department is patient portal services.

Unlike traditional e-mail, patient portals are secure online outlets that allow for electronic communication between practices and patients. Through portals, patients can send e-mail questions, pay bills, and more. Portals are designed to integrate with EHRs, so data can transfer more easily.

“It’s far more efficient for a triage nurse to check a portal every half an hour than to keep answering those interrupting phone calls,” says Nelson. “Those calls take people away from the work that they’re doing. A portal helps nurses schedule work around that.”

Other patient-engaging tech tools and trends that are expected to find their way into practices include programs that allow patients to receive text message reminders, social media, and user-friendly websites.

Trend #4: Tech Tools to Improve the Bottom Line
Telehealth technology vendor American Well Systems has exhibited annually at the MGMA conference and other healthcare events for years, but this year marks the Boston-based provider’s first foray into technology specifically tailored to physician practices.

The company’s latest online care system for practices allows consumers to connect with physicians immediately. So if, for example, a child is crying for an unknown reason in the dead of the night, his mother can turn on her computer and connect with a live pediatrician via a real time chat program. The pediatrician can, in turn, bill the virtual visit using one of the increasing number of CPT codes that covers telehealth visits and services.

Why tap into this smaller-than-hospitals market now?

Roy Schoenberg, American Well System’s CEO, says practices, even small ones with one or two physicians, are looking for ways to generate extra revenue. Schoenberg offers the example of a Medicare patient who is part of an ACO.

“When practices are beginning to have ACO contracts, and take [financial] risks for patient populations, they [want the] ability to check on Mrs. Jones without having to spend overhead on an office visits,” says Schoenberg. “At the end of the day, if Mrs. Jones is doing well, those physicians are going to keep the money.”

Telehealth also allows for patients in rural areas of the country to have access to specialists, which financially benefits the practice offering the consultation and provides additional convenience to patients.

“You have the ability for your primary-care physician in North Dakota to bring in that special knowledge,” Schoenberg says.

Revenue-enhancing services you can outsource - such as automated bill payment products, e-statements, and coding technology - should also get plenty of attention by passers-by on the exhibition floor, adds Nelson.

“It’s all about convenience,” says Nelson. “I think people recognize that your people costs, your payroll costs, are your highest operating cost. Everybody wants to reduce headcount or more effectively use staff. Outsourcing some of those things that are automated lets [practices] cut back on using staff for menial tasks.”

Trend #5: Mobile Solutions
According to our 2011 Technology Survey, gathering the opinions of more than 1,000 physicians in the first quarter of this year, most physicians use smartphones, and more than one in five practices already has at least one physician using a media tablet.

What promises to be new and exciting at Las Vegas is the sheer number of mobile applications available to practices.

Tom Giannulli, chief medical officer for Epocrates, says his company - perhaps best known for its medical reference mobile applications - will be demonstrating its three-month-old cloud-based EHR for the first time at the MGMA conference.

“The adoption of smartphones by doctors is about 80 percent, as opposed to 40 percent in the general public, so doctors are head of the curve,” says Giannulli.

Because most doctors expect their EHRs to have a mobile component, physicians who purchase the Epocrates EHR receive a free EHR application for use on select smartphone models. An EHR application for iPad media tablets is also in the works.

“It’s definitely an area of high demand,” Giannulli says.

Among the handful of practice-targeted EHR offerings technology vendor GE is presenting at MGMA11 is a mobile version of its “Centricity Advanced” cloud-based EHR for media tablets.

“The problem with a PC is that it sits on a desk and physicians want to be mobile,” says Brandon Savage, CMO for GE Healthcare. “That’s one of the major drivers for this tool.”

We’d like to hear from you. Are you going to the MGMA11 show? And if so, what technology products and services are you most looking forward to seeing? What tech-related sessions are you excited to attend? Post your response below.

Marisa Torrieri is an associate editor at Physicians Practice. She can be reached here.