Top Ten Healthcare Technology Tools and Trends of 2012

From cloud-based computing to patient portals, here’s what, technology-wise, made a big bang in physician practices nationwide.

The year 2012 marked some important developments in healthcare technology, fueled largely by federal laws such as the Affordable Care Act, as well as economic necessity. From cloud-based computing to patient portals, here’s what, technology-wise, made a big bang in physician practices nationwide.

1. Patient portals: It should be no surprise that portals top our list of healthcare tools. With new patient-engagement requirements tucked into the second stage of CMS’ meaningful use requirements, as well as a crackdown on practices violating HIPAA, which spurred practices to look for more secure alternatives for physician-patient communication, portal use soared in 2012. Of the nearly 1,400 physicians, practice administrators, and healthcare workers who participated in our annual Technology Survey, Sponsored by AT&T, 29 percent said they owned a portal. That’s not a lot - until you consider that just 20 percent said they owned a portal in the 2011 survey. “Portals starting to get traction and attention especially in light of Stage 2 MU requirements,” MGMA healthcare consultant Rosemarie Nelson told Physicians Practice.

2. Cloud-based technology: While the cloud has its critics - most of whom cite lack of control over data and unexpected crashes as reasons to choose on-premises, server-based EHRs - it also has an increasing number of champions. “It’s a great way for small practices to reduce overhead and headache by outsourcing the maintenance of the data,” MGMA consultant Derek Kosiorek told Physicians Practice. “In the past, security and speed have been problems, but the technology has caught up and has made both great options.”

3. Apps for patient engagement: The buzz phrase - patient engagement - popped up everywhere, from CMS’ meaningful use regulations to discussions on patient portals, in 2012. In the same year, developers continued to see increased profits off mobile applications designed to help patients take control of their healthcare (such as weight-management apps). The culmination of circumstances meant a growing number of physicians spent the last 12 months recommending some great apps to engage patients in their health. And as 2013 gets rolling, we expect this trend to continue.  

4. Tablet computing: Many experts agree 2010 was the year of the smartphone. And so it can be said, arguably, that 2012 was the year of the media tablet, a device category led by Apple’s iPhone. This year saw many traditional EHR vendor houses offering tablet versions of their flagship products, as well as physicians eager to use them. The number of physicians who use media tablets is anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent today, depending on which survey you believe. “The definition of what a tablet computer is changed in 2012,” noted Kosiorek. “In the medical world, a tablet can still refer to the windows laptop that has a swivel screen and a stylus. Now tablets are iPads and the ability to use them by doctors is in great demand.”

5. Speech-recognition tools: While voice- and speech-recognition tools are nothing new, their increasing use by physicians parallels the uptick in EHR users - especially among those who aren’t proficient typists or whose first language isn’t English. Another factor fueling adoption is the increasing accuracy of the technology, observed Kosiorek.

6. Twitter: Not only are more physicians using this social-media hub to promote their practices, they’re also using it to communicate news and information that’s important to patients. “I think it was more of a novelty until 2012, especially with events like Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy,” said Salem, Ohio-based family medicine doc Mike Sevilla. “First responders are turning to the Internet for this type of information, and I won't be surprised if Twitter and other real time social media platforms will be in more common use in the future.”

7. EHR sidekicks: Technology that’s compatible with EHRs and helps patients meet CMS’ meaningful use objectives for Stage 2 of its EHR Incentive Program took off this year. In addition to patient portals, Nelson said she saw increased interest in disease-management systems and registry tools to integrate into the EHR.

8. Secure messaging: For those of you who aren’t well-versed on HIPAA privacy and security rules, e-mailing patients is on the “out” list. This year, the risks of electronic privacy breaches and consequences were highlighted by CMS, which showed through its disciplinary action  that protecting patient health information is no joke. Physicians who continue to send un-secure messages via their “Gmail” or other web-based e-mail accounts (in lieu of using something like a portal or other e-mail-encryption technology) could find themselves in hot water in 2013.

9. Video: The moving picture is having its moment in the sun. In 2012, video-based telemedicine increased, thanks in part to a growth in coverage by private payers in different states. Virtual visits offer loads of benefits, such as top-notch services for rural patients, or a way for moonlighting or retired docs to make a little extra money by connecting with patients in off hours to answer medical questions.  If these weren’t big-enough selling points for video, consider this: An increasing number of physicians are creating more videos to post online - both to educate patients and promote their practices - thanks in part to an expanded market of tools available that make it easy to do. 

10. Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs): Thanks to the government’s goals for healthcare organizations to join forces to improve care and reduce inefficiencies, ACOs became a reality in 2012. Today, hospitals and independent practices alike are on the prowl for care partners. The partnership trend, in turn, has spurred investment in new technologies by practices, said Jeff Wood, vice president of product management for Navicure. “The changing nature of hospital-physician relationships has been a well-documented development,” Wood told Physicians Practice. “The increased emphasis on coordination across the continuum of care has led hospitals to acquire or align closely with practices. While these combinations streamline many aspects of care delivery, practices have started to realize the importance of maintaining the best-of-breed technologies that work best for their practices.”

What new technology did your practice implement in 2012? Share below.