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The pandemic has made those previously reticent to adopt technology wake up to its necessity.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced health systems and private practices to implement technology solutions such as telehealth, the evolution toward a more tech-savvy healthcare experience was firmly underway. The days of carting paper charts and hard film x-rays has been broadly supplanted with cloud-based electronic health records and digital Picture Archiving Communications Systems (PACS). The pandemic has made those previously reticent to adopt technology wake up to its necessity.
Practicing medicine today requires a higher degree of technical literacy than ever before, and the challenges of the pandemic have only reinforced and accelerated that trend. We have reached an inflection point in the industry where clinical expertise is not the only prerequisite for a successful career. Physicians who familiarize, vet, and incorporate new technology into their practices will likely be in the best position to deliver optimal care. Some of us have committed to being more directly involved in designing software solutions to ensure the needs and interests of clinicians are accurately represented, communicated, and realized.
Healthcare entities continue to feel the squeeze of declining reimbursement coupled with increased operational costs. Rising overhead has been a concern for private practices for decades. A recent AMA survey reported the average practice saw a 30% revenue decrease in 2020. Independent practices are taking advantage of innovations in health tech to remain productive during the pandemic and in the face of mounting consolidation and acquisition pressures in the sector. In doing so, stakeholders should look beyond basic digital recordkeeping options toward more sophisticated cloud-based solutions. For example, they should invest in software with an adaptive learning algorithm that remembers your preferences and learns your practice patterns, thereby delivering workflow automation. Built-in voice recognition, mobile-device compatibility, photo capture and storage systems, specialty-specific content, and coding support are other forward-thinking features to consider. Investing in these tools will only increase in importance over time.
With respect to practice management, streamlining claims submissions and payment processing can result in significant savings for the healthcare system, which spends more than $800 billion on administrative costs per year. When physician-led entities implement practice management solutions that go beyond electronic claims submission and A/R tracking toward robust data analytics and electronic payment options for patients, they will see that bet on technology pay off.
In addition to higher patient expectations, new federal legislation is driving the need for transparency and increased patient engagement. This will ultimately contribute to better clinical outcomes, but getting there requires the successful implementation of patient-friendly interfaces and communication platforms. These solutions keep messages between patients and their physicians from getting “lost in translation”. They also free up the phones during busy clinic hours when it’s “all hands on deck”, and are very well received by patients, especially if they can communicate directly with their care team via a smartphone app.
It makes sense to involve practicing clinicians in the development of these solutions. Healthcare IT has already seen examples of tech companies recruiting physicians and surgeons across specialties. These doctors are taught basic coding skills and paired with a corps of formally trained software engineers and product teams to create specialty-specific solutions across medicine. This approach helps to ensure that the design of the software actually saves time and eases the burden of unnecessary documentation for the practicing clinician. It also allows physicians to continually improve upon the platform by using it in our own offices, providing real-time feedback on what we executed well, and identifying product needs.
I became interested in joining this group of clinicians by way of my friendship with Drs. David Lehman and Elana Oberstein. Dr. Lehman had taken a step back from an ENT practice where he performed life-saving, radical head and neck procedures for cancer patients. Dr. Oberstein was also taking time away from an academic appointment in rheumatology, where she cares for patients with some of the most recalcitrant and disabling cases of autoimmune disease. Both physicians did so to work in health tech and develop desperately needed software solutions for our colleagues. I started working with them by giving their team feedback as an orthopedic surgery client, until one day we just decided I should join the team. By working in tech, we have the unique opportunity to have a large-scale impact on our colleagues’ levels of professional satisfaction, productivity, and indirectly on the quality of patient care, since it is well established that physician burnout negatively impacts clinical decision making. We recognize the gravity of this responsibility and approach our jobs in tech as seriously as we do our clinical responsibilities.
It has been over a decade since I had to transport 100 pounds worth of hard film on a wheeled cart across a 1500-bed hospital as a resident on a busy orthopedic trauma service. Since that time, health tech as a sector has seen explosive growth and innovation, and that trajectory is expected to continue. But, it will include more scrutiny on its actual realized benefit with respect to increased patient satisfaction, improved clinical outcomes, and more cost-efficient care. I expect clinicians will have an even greater willingness to embrace new technology, and those in their ranks may be part of the design process critical to the development of meaningful solutions with measurable benefit in these three areas. The more physicians embrace technology, from which their workflows and practices stand to benefit, the more they can provide a voice for its further advancement and evolution.
Veronica Diaz, MD has been in private practice for 10 years and serves as the Medical Director of Orthopedics at the health technology company Modernizing Medicine®.