How one practice puts technology to work

Systems save staff time, money

Columbus (OH) Oncology Associates, a seven-physician practice, relies on technology to give its staff more time to spend with patients and to make the practice more efficient, says Ruth Lander, FACMPE, practice administrator.

Here is a look at some of the ways the practice puts technology to work:

Internal pager system. When a telephone call comes in to a physician or key staff member, the PBX operator pages that person with an alphanumeric message and a two-digit code. The code identifies where the call is "parked." The recipient can dial the code from any telephone in the building and get the phone call.

Before the system was implemented, the operator called around to various locations trying to find someone. This created disruptions and noise similar to an overhead announcement system.

"The system disrupted everyone, physicians, patients, and staff. The new system is wonderful. I don’t have to go back to my office to get a call. It saves time and it cuts down on the noise," Lander says.

Room lighting system. The practice has been using a system that identifies which examining room each physician is to go into next. Each of the seven physicians in the practice is assigned a color, and each of the 11 examining rooms has a light bar with all seven colors on it.

When a doctor enters a room, he presses a button that indicates on a master panel where he is. When he leaves, he presses a button again, turning off his light. The room where he is to go next then lights up. A similar lighting system in the physicians’ offices notifies them when patients are ready. There also are panels in key areas that track where the physicians are.

"If a nurse needs to catch a physician, she can find him and not waste any time," Lander says.

Lander is looking into updating the system so it will track how long physicians are in each room, how long patients wait for a physician once they’re in an exam room, utilization of each examination room, and lulls in the schedule. There are several such systems on the market, Lander says.

Voice recognition transcription. The practice helped a company develop a voice recognition transcription system for oncology. The physicians speak into what looks like a normal handheld transcription machine. Instead of a tape, it contains a small disk that captures a digital voice recording of the physician’s speech. That digital recording is later downloaded into a PC with a voice recognition program, which transcribes the recording into words. The document is edited minimally by the transcription secretary before it is processed. The system includes a fax modem that allows the transcription to be faxed directly to a referring physician. The practice is in the process of implementing this system now.

In addition to saving time, the practice saves the cost of the letterhead and postage, Lander says.

"I love saving money. It costs a lot to send personal letters to the referring doctors, but we certainly want to keep them informed about their patients," she says.

The practice still prints out its progress notes because Lander hasn’t found a satisfactory electronic medical records package yet.

Education. Instead of traveling off site for continuing education, physicians and other practice staff often rely on audiotaped seminars, audio conferences, and Internet medical education services to earn their continuing education credits.

Learn while you drive

Lander often sets up audio conferences with the Medical Group Management Association in Englewood, CO, for several staff members at a time. Some physicians listen to audiotapes in their cars going to and from work.

Not only does the technology save travel costs, it helps the practice work more efficiently, Lander says.

"Physicians can complete many of their CMEs this way. When the physicians are away from the office, they aren’t making any money. What they really need to do when they are away from the office is take a vacation and not spend that time at educational programs," she adds.

Periodicals and books on CD-ROM. Lander likes these because they take up less space than books and magazines and because they have search capabilities that save the staff time.

On-line payables. Lander pays as many of the practice bills as possible on-line.

"The actual cost is about the same as a postage stamp, but it has saved my time. When I am on vacation, I don’t have to worry. The payments go out on the day they are supposed to," she says.

Drug companies still send hard copy, but Lander is working with many of her major suppliers to set up on-line invoices.

Automated ordering. Many items the practice uses, including all its equipment and supplies and much of its drug supply, are ordered electronically. "There’s no way I’d ever put anything in the mail," Lander says.

Marketing. The practice maintains an Internet Web page that markets the practice and provides information to patients, including a program that writes out directions from the patient’s home. There also are multiple links to major cancer sites.

The Web page includes information on the practice, including physician biographies and photos, clinical trial information, and new forms that patients can print and fill out rather than having to wait for a packet in the mail.