From iPhone applications that enable remote access to electronic health records to tablet PCs with voice recognition software to Web-based portals that let patients check-in, schedule appointments, and get lab results online, medical practices these days have become high-tech operations. Implemented properly, of course, new software can enhance both productivity and the patient experience. But done poorly, it can be tens of thousands of dollars down the drain — not to mention a hassle factor of epic proportions.
Indeed, practices looking to reap the benefit of their investment in medical technology must be willing to commit the time, money, and resources to train their team on its use, says Derek Kosiorek, a technology consultant with the MGMA Health Care Consulting Group. "Your success with technology has a lot to do with the amount of time you put into it, which can be difficult because physicians often see the amount of training required as adversely effecting productivity," he says. "But we see a lot of complaints about a lot of systems being used in practices and anytime there's an issue it's more often than not the vendor's fault in the mind of the user — when really it usually could have been avoided by better training."
Here is an overview of "best practice" training methods for bringing the end users in your office — doctors, staff, and patients — up to speed.
The first step to implementing new technology, be it EHR, mobile medical apps, or practice management software, is to assess the computer literacy of your team, says Peter Polack, an ophthalmologist with Ocala Eye in Ocala, Fla., and founder of emedikon.com, a practice management consulting firm. "You have to assess your employees' basic computer skills and bring them to a certain level of competency before they can even begin training on a new program," he says. "You can start by setting up a couple of computers in a spare room, designing a simple test, and rotating a few people in at a time." Ask them to create a Word document and save it into a specific folder, print something to a default printer in a different part of the building, and log on and log off successfully using secure passwords, Polack suggests. You can also create a questionnaire about basic computer terminology and ask your staff what programs they've used before. Younger employees and physicians are generally the most tech savvy, notes Polack, while older workers with less computer experience may need more hand holding.
During the skills assessment phase, be sensitive to the fact that some employees may get flustered by computer jargon or fear their job will become redundant after the new system goes live. It's your job to reassure, says Jeffery Daigrepont, a senior vice president with the healthcare consulting firm The Coker Group in Atlanta. "We think that best practices for training staff is to do everything in phases and stages," he says. "In some smaller practices that have not yet modernized a lot of times the staff just doesn't trust technology, so getting them some tools that are a little more mobile, and encouraging them to use e-mail and verify eligibility on the Internet can help get them acclimated."
Tailor your training
Next, establish a training plan, including the appointment of an in-house project manager, a realistic timeframe for implementation, and a customized set of goals for each end user, says Sue Zumwalt, administrator of the 8-provider Pediatric Associates of Stockton, in Stockton, Calif., and a columnist for the Professional Association of Health Care Office Management. Before going paperless in 2006, Zumwalt sent her 25 employees to six one-hour online training sessions (more if they requested it) on their new EHR and tablet PCs. "Before the new system even arrived, we had them go into a quiet room one at a time, which we called the 'university,' to complete a training program that helped them become familiar with the screens and how the EHR was set up to their specific job needs," she says. "The front desk person had a different training module than the back office person."
That's good strategy, says Eric Fishman, owner of emrconsultant.com in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., adding one of the biggest pitfalls of tech training is overwhelming your staff with material they don't need. While everyone should know how to perform basic functions using your new system, such as scheduling appointments and updating charts, don't force your back office personnel to learn the digital ropes of processing claims if that's not part of their job description. Instead, provide a basic orientation for everyone and then rotate in different departments for more tailored skill building, he says.
Fishman notes, too, that the most effective learning takes place when end users aren't preoccupied with their work, which is especially significant when implementing a complex system like an EHR. "I would strongly recommend closing the office for a day or two to get your staff trained," he says. "The initial introduction of the system should happen when there are zero patients in the office." Or, you can also ask your employees to come in early or stay late to complete their training, but that will cost you extra in overtime. If you must hold sessions when the office is open, consider blocking or reducing schedules that day, says Fishman.
While all staff members should be proficient on the ins and outs of new technology in your practice, Polack says it's important to designate one or two of your more tech savvy employees to become "superusers," providing them additional training at a higher level. "If you're a smaller practice you may not have a full-time IT person, so you need to have some people in your office with a higher level of expertise who can assist your other employees and troubleshoot if there are any problems with the equipment," says Polack. Those same superusers should also train any future hires and handle the inevitable support calls to the vendor, he says.