Front-end planning avoids back-end mistakes

Plan carefully when buying technology

It’s not hard for a large physician practice to make a $1 million mistake when purchasing information technology, says John Spearly, vice president of Phoenix Health Systems, a firm specializing in health care information technology consulting and outsourcing in Washington, DC.

A simple practice management solution could range from $30,000 to $40,000 for a small office to more than $1 million for a large multigroup practice.

With that kind of expense, it’s necessary to do careful planning.

"Choosing information technology can be very complex. Front-end planning is very important," Spearly says. Before considering a purchase of new information technology or upgrading what you are currently using, do some strategic planning, he advises.

"A mistake that is easily made in information technology is to sit down with the salesman, look at a product, decide it looks right for the practice, and make a purchase. There needs to be a more logical approach," Spearly says.

Urology Associates of Southeastern North Carolina took 18 months to decide what new technology was needed, analyze the options, make a decision, and place an order, says Richard Rutherford, CMPE, former administrator of the Wilmington, NC, practice. He recently joined the American Urological Association as head of its practice management section. "New products come on the market every day; it’s an intimidating process," he says.

Spearly suggests that physician practices begin the decision-making process by learning more about their external environment, internal business objectives, and computer systems and applications, as well as the gaps between what they are using now and what they want or need.

Then practices should look at the options available and develop a plan to meet their objectives. It may be a multi-year, multifaceted process, Spearly adds. "Information technology should be viewed as a means to achieve business objectives and approached in that manner."

There are a lot of companies offering a variety of products that can get health care providers technologically up to speed, says Julie Elmore Jones, MBA, MHA, consultant with Gates, Moore & Company, a health care management consulting and accounting firm in Atlanta.

"There is an endless array of products that will do everything from providing on-line services to computerized patient records. Some are good technology, and some are not there yet," she adds.

When it comes to purchasing technology for your practice, you’ve got a lot to choose from.

One industry journal lists more than 200 vendors of practice management software and more than 275 computerized medical records vendors.

Here are some factors you should consider when selecting technology for your practice:

- Functionality.

Most physicians won’t use the software if it isn’t fast, easy, intuitive, and geared toward how a physician thinks, organizes, and works, Spearly adds.

Also consider these questions:

— Will the software meet the needs your practice has identified?

— Is the system easy to use?

— Is it an intuitive system with minimal training time involved?

"My experience has shown that it’s hard to get physician practices to change their work flow to match the functionality of computer system," he says.

Before you buy, you should see the program in use and talk to people who use it to make sure it fits your needs.

A common step is to have vendors respond for a request for proposal (RFP) that lists the necessary functions and features. But don’t stop there. "A vendor will never answer no’ to an RFP feature or function because it will have them excluded. You’ll probably get yeses’ and qualified yeses’" Spearly says.

- Technical factors.

Many vendors may try to undersize a system to keep the initial cost down, Spearly says. If you buy an undersized system, you’ll end up having to invest in more storage space on the computer drive or more licenses to accommodate the number of users. Make sure your system can grow with your practice in case your practice grows or merges with another practice.

Check to see that your new hardware and software are compatible with existing systems such as corporate headquarters or your community hospital.

- Costs.

Take into account the initial cost and ongoing maintenance and support.

"The careful buyer realizes that, in many ways, software vendors are not in the software selling business but in the support and maintenance business. That’s where they make their money," Spearly says. Find out if the license fees are perpetual or annual, and what the maintenance and support fees are.

- Support and service.

These are critical needs when you purchase information technology. You need to make sure that when you have a problem and call for support, the company is going to answer your call and get back to you with a solution. Check references very carefully to verify the company provides good support and service.