Computer Consult: Drowning in documents? Scan 'em!

April 12, 2002

A scanner and documentation management software could be the lifeline you need.

 

Computer Consult

Drowning in documents? Scan 'em!

A scanner and documentation management software could be the lifeline you need.

Cheryl L. Toth

Even if they have computers, most physician practices are still miles away from the ultraefficient paperless office.

Explanation of benefits (EOB) statements pile up. So do photocopies of insurance checks. Then there are the forms: referral forms, return-to-work forms, diagnostic test order forms, credentialing forms. And to fill them out, most office staffers rely on an ancient tool—the pen.

But the 21st century offers an inexpensive way to reduce such paper pushing: scanning documents into your computer. The vast storage capacity of a computer hard drive or CD can keep paper from covering every centimeter of counter and desk space. And completing scanned-in forms on the screen with a keyboard is faster than writing in longhand.

Karen Lanford is the reimbursement manager for a 17-doctor Louisiana practice that has gone this route. "We had paper and people everywhere, and we were all working at full tilt," she says. "We had to get creative to increase productivity amid this chaos."

Lanford and her staff got to thinking: If the bank can provide a CD of cancelled checks each month, why couldn't the practice do that with checks from insurers and patients? So they did. Then they went a step further by scanning and indexing EOBs that came with insurance checks.

Document management software digitizes the information and stores it on the hard drive of Lanford's computer. Checks are categorized by number. "That keeps them more organized than grouping by insurance company name, which can be hard to track if IPAs and third-party administrators process claims," notes Lanford.

Everyone on the practice's network can access the digitized EOBs and checks stored on Lanford's machine. At the end of the month, Lanford burns two CDs, each containing the EOBs and checks posted that month. She files one in a fireproof safe and gives the other to the staff, so they can look up documents when they need to answer a patient's question about a bill or solve a payment problem with an insurer.

The result? The practice no longer has desk drawers stuffed with EOBs. Now, all that paper is shredded. Photocopied checks remain on the premises, but Lanford says the practice will eventually dispense with them as well and rely solely on digitized versions.

Electronic storage isn't the only benefit of digitizing documents. You can also scan forms into the computer to reap the advantages of automation. "Our checkout staff can call up work-release forms, physical therapy order sheets, and jury duty releases on their screens," says Diane Arechiga, practice manager of a four-doctor group in Bakersfield, CA. "They just type in the patient's name and any specific orders from the physician, then print a copy."

Arechiga's reception staff uses document management software to streamline referral authorizations. "They complete the administrative portions on a scanned-in form and print it. Once the patient is seen, the nurse adds CPT and diagnosis codes and faxes the form to the insurance company."

Document management software also speeds up credentialing and recredentialing physicians with insurers. "I scan in the credentialing form from each plan," says Karen Lanford, "and type in all the things that are the same for each physician—practice address, phone number, tax identification number." She then creates an electronic copy for each physician and completes the doctor-specific data fields before printing and sending the form.

Arechiga saves credentialing forms on the hard drive along with scanned-in copies of the doctors' medical licenses and certifications. When it's time to recredential them, she just updates information like CME credits and prints fresh copies.

If you're going to fax the forms, you don't even have to print them. Just complete them on the screen and fax them right from the computer.

Another beauty of scanning: It fits into any medical practice, regardless of its automation level. If you rely on paper medical charts, you can print scanned-in documents and stick them in a patient's folder. And when you switch to EMR software, you'll be able to export them directly into the new electronic chart.

For all its benefits, scanning technology is strikingly cheap. Lanford's and Arechiga's practices use a document management program called PaperPort by ScanSoft (www.scansoft.com ); the Deluxe 8.0 version costs about $100. You can buy an acceptable scanner with a sheet feeder for $100 to $600. If you want to make scanning loads of EOBs and checks a breeze, though, be prepared to spend up to $5,000 for a scanner that digitizes both sides of a document simultaneously. The benefits are worth the cost.

"It's really a matter of how far you want to go to make your office more efficient," says Diane Arechiga. "The potential use of the scanner is as wide as your imagination."

The author is a Tucson-based writer and practice management consultant with KarenZupko & Associates. Computer Consult is edited by Senior Editor Robert Lowes.

 

Cheryl Toth. Computer Consult: Drowning in documents? Scan 'em!. Medical Economics 2002;7:31.