From need to a new revenue stream

How one practice turned an idea into income

Necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes, it’s also the source of new income. Just ask John Given, MD, solo practitioner at the Canton, OH-based Allergy and Respiratory Center. He turned his practice’s need for better data into a side business, Theta Pro, which now sells his medical software program to other practices around the country.

"Allergy is an information-intensive specialty," he says. "There are a lot of details to collect about people — their medications, their reactions to medications, and their past experiences." Although over time he’s gained insight about what to ask his patients, Given still found himself asking the same questions over and over again. "I was trying to keep my documentation at a high level as the demands of insurance companies escalated."

Add to that an explosion of new asthma and allergy drugs, and Given found himself spending most of each of his 25 daily appointments asking patients questions, not answering them.

He knew that a computer program would help him handle more data faster, freeing up his time to spend with patients. It would also decrease his dictation and record keeping — the busy work that many solo practitioners find so daunting.

But when Given looked around for the appropriate program, he found nothing. Feeling frustrated, about eight years ago, he started collaborating with a computer programmer to write his own program.

"It was a whim," recalls Given. But that whim has grown — from a DOS program to one that works with Windows, and from a database with names and addresses to a program that includes information on medications and a prescription writing element. The final product has a shell of databases that can be adapted for virtually any specialty.

The databases include:

patient demographics;

medications;

diagnoses;

physician addresses for mailing referral letters and lab findings;

insurance and managed care;

phone messages.

Given’s program has changed his practice dramatically. Nurse clinicians have been added to the practice, and the patient load has increased by 30%. "And now, at my office visits, instead of being consumed by refreshing my mind on specific information and instead of dictating reports and proofreading, I can spend time listening to patients, motivating them," says Given.

Patients appreciate the time, and satisfaction survey scores have increased, he says. "We have more comments such as, the doctor is less rushed,’ even though we are spending the same amount of time per patient."

Because the patients’ charts are largely computerized now, Given says he can also make more accurate diagnoses and give better advice when he is on call. He can simply dial into the computer system from his home computer and access the patient’s entire record.

Along with the savings he made in his own practice, Given was able to develop his idea into a separate business. Three years ago, he started selling his program — the average price is between $2,800 and $5,000 depending on the size of the installation. Although most of his customers are in his specialty, there have been other clients.

"Financially, I still haven’t recouped my initial investment," Given admits. "I had to pay for so much of the research and design for the program. But defining success more broadly — the success of clarifying my vision of what I want my practice to be, the satisfaction of working through problems with my staff, and now, having an efficient practice that gives me confidence looking to the future — yes, it is a success."

Given says he didn’t start out with an eye to creating a new business, and he warns physicians with other good ideas not to work on them in hopes of making money. "Every time I made a decision based on whether it would do my practice good, the decision worked out well," he says. "Every time I made a decision based on marketing — like going to a seminar or doing a blitz of free demonstration disks — I was disappointed."

In fact, Given laughs about his marketing naiveté now. "I had this idea that I had a good idea, I would share it with people, and I would be flooded with requests. People were curious, but we spent a lot of time with people who weren’t interested in the end."

Now, Given and his staff do a free initial consultation but charge customers who exhibit a strong interest in the program. "That helps to focus their minds and determine if this is something that they need and they want. Charging a fee is a good screener."

Given says he hopes a company with marketing expertise will take over promoting the program for him, leaving him to the business of his practice. "I’m glad I focused on issues and features that would help me in my day-to-day, minute-to-minute practice," he says. "I never got off target trying to add some features strictly to enhance the marketability of the program. I never invested too much money in the marketing process per se. I spent most of my resources in developing a product and program that would be good for my practice. Even if the business fails to show a profit, it’s an overall benefit for my practice."

It is that focus — the needs of your practice — that Given encourages others with good ideas to concentrate on. "Don’t get sidetracked on other businesses prematurely," he says. "That’s been my lesson. Do what will help your practice."  

John Given, MD, physician in practice, Allergy and Respiratory Center, Canton, OH. Telephone: (800) 560-8398.