Best use of the Internet? Save time and money

The Web can streamline your back office

Many practices make a major error as they try to determine the best use of the Internet: They focus on the wrong end of the financial curve, experts say.

Instead of looking at the Internet as a way to dramatically increase billing and revenues, the typical practitioner’s best bet is to think of it as more of a money- and time-saving tool, recommends Douglas Goldstein. Goldstein is a consultant in Columbia, SC, and author of e-Healthcare: Harness the Power of Internet e-Commerce and e-Care.

Unlike a retailer with a product to sell, the typical doctor’s office sells a personalized service, says Goldstein. Unfortunately for physicians, it is usually easier to create and fill an increased demand for a product than a service — any service.

"My advice to health care providers is to look first to make money from the Internet by finding ways it can save them money," Goldstein suggests. The easiest way is by transferring more administrative tasks from the office staff to the Internet.

For example, studies show the typical nonmedical office employee spends about 30% of total work time on the phone answering questions about office hours, doctors’ credentials, and common ailments such as colds and fevers.

"But by posting answers to these frequently asked questions on a Web site, you are able to partially free up some of that time to concentrate on patient care," says Goldstein.

Being wired’ helps

More insurers are encouraging doctors to submit claims and referral requests over the Internet, which also can save a practice time and money. "Some doctors are even starting to manage patients over the Net," says Goldstein. Patients with questions about noncritical ailments can e-mail the office and be guaranteed a response within an hour. Other providers have set up chat rooms for real-time consultations with patients.

"Every time a nurse picks up the phone, it’s anywhere from $5 to $25 in time spent, depending on the length of the call, compared to 5 or 10 cents for e-mail," Goldstein says.

Practices are using Internet sites, or portals, that provide easy access to the different services and firms the practice does business with. Recently, two major Web players began offering provider services via the Web. ProxyMed in Fort Lauderdale, FL, has been selling transaction services using proprietary software for about seven years and is now testing a Web version of its service. Healtheon/WebMD in Atlanta, which started by creating Web-based transaction processing for large health care companies such as integrated health care and physician service organizations, is now offering the same service to individual doctors on its Web site.

Both Web sites provide a portal that gives doctors health care content, such as medical news and journal articles, along with transaction-related processing services. For a $30 monthly fee, doctors can use the Web site to send prescriptions to drugstores, authorize prescription refills, order lab tests, view lab test results, check patient eligibility, authorize referrals, submit claims to insurance companies, and check on the status of claims.

"Before turning to the Internet, the simple process of writing prescriptions and authorizing refills was seriously bogging our office operations down," says Al Worchel, MD, a general practitioner in Houston. Worchel, who uses ProxyMed, says the system makes it much easier to work with drugstores.

To create a prescription, he enters the patient’s name and the first few letters of the drug he wants to prescribe. The system automatically completes the name of the drug, lists the dosages in a checklist, and indicates any potential conflicts with other drugs the patient is taking. Once the prescription is complete, he clicks a button that sends it to ProxyMed’s server, which forwards it to the patient’s pharmacy.

Previously, every time a patient wanted a refill, the pharmacist had to call Worchel’s office for authorization, which took time out of the day for him and his staff to respond. Now, the pharmacist simply sends a query through the ProxyMed system. Every few hours, Worchel logs on to the system, checks the refill requests, clicks his approval or denial on each, and in about five minutes, he’s finished.