Computer Consult: Put a PC in your waiting room!

September 3, 2001

It can help you educate patients, improve medical care, free up staff time, and boost income?how&s that for silicon power?

 

Computer Consult

Put a PC in your waiting room!

It can help you educate patients, improve medical care, free up staff time, and boost income—how's that for silicon power?

By Rosemarie Nelson

Is your office designed for the 21st century of medicine? It isn't unless there's a computer in every exam room, at every nurse's station, in every doctor's private office, and, yes, in the waiting room.

If your reception area offers nothing more than magazines and potted plants, it's time to upgrade the space for the computer age. By equipping it with a PC, you can connect with patients in high-tech fashion. The payoff? Healthier patients, higher productivity, and maybe even an uptick in income.

An internal medicine practice in New York state uses a waiting room PC to streamline patient registration. Patients can choose between supplying demographic and billing information on the traditional printed questionnaire or via computer. If patients go the paper route, staffers must type the data into their practice management program. But with the online form, the information automatically flows to the appropriate fields in the program's database. In other words, the patient—not a staffer—does the data entry, although it does require proofreading. More than half the patients opt for the computer, and the doctors expect that percentage to increase once they add a second PC.

True, the internists had to spend $1,000 for the PC and another $5,000 on programming to link the online registration form to the practice management software. But their investment is paying off. When a part-time receptionist recently quit, the practice didn't replace her. No need to—automated patient registration had reduced the front desk's workload.

These internists discovered, incidentally, that the appeal of a waiting room computer isn't limited to silicon-hip youngsters. More than a third of their Medicare patients register online.

What works for patient registration also works for medical histories. If you operate with paper medical records, you simply have a patient or staffer fill out a questionnaire and pop it into the file. But if your practice uses electronic medical records, you'll probably want a digitized version of the medical history. That means a staffer must key in the data—as if she weren't busy enough. Again, why not let the patient make the keystrokes?

A four-doctor ophthalmology practice invited patients to do just that. Putting the form on the computer was easy: A staffer converted the old paper version to HTML format and posted it on the practice's Web site. Once a patient fills in the blanks, the electronic form is imported into the EMR system as a single document.

So far, approximately two-thirds of the practice's patients record their medical histories via computer, either in the waiting room or at home. Because staffers are less preoccupied with data entry, they devote more time and energy to moving patients between the waiting room and the exam room. The result is improved efficiency that allows each doctor to see at least one extra patient a day. At $50 a visit, this increased volume translates into an additional $250 a week, or as much as $13,000 a year.

While the ophthalmology practice found a homemade solution to automating medical histories, this kind of software is available commercially. One program, Instant Medical History from Primetime Medical Software (www.medicalhistory.com), is touted as a painless way to document CPT evaluation and management codes as required by Medicare. Have patients who'd rather not type? A program from M.S. Group Software (www.msgroupsys.com) relies on a touch screen for data entry. Both programs pose questions based on answers to previous questions, which allows for a more detailed, focused probing of the patient's condition than you'd get with a paper form.

Your waiting room PC can give as well as receive: Just load it with patient-education software, and you can dispense information to patients on how to stay healthy and what to do if they get sick. To find vendors, go to an Internet search engine like Google (www.google.com) and type in the words "patient education software." Within seconds, you'll see a long list of places to shop.

Or simply check out your specialty medical society. The American Academy of Family Physicians (www.aafp.org), for example, markets a CD-ROM with more than 500 patient-education subjects for $175 ($195 for nonmembers).

Patient education is a big reason why many doctors have launched their own Web sites. But what if you build a Web site and hardly anyone visits it? Well, you can promote your site on a waiting room PC. To make sure that the site's always visible, maintain your connection to the Internet all day and don't use a screensaver. (You can discourage people from visiting chat rooms or X-rated sites by installing a watchdog program such as Cyber Patrol.)

Patients who explore your site will learn not only how to look up info about their skin rash, but how to request appointments, prescription refills, and immunization records. Just imagine your phone ringing less as patients do more of their communicating in cyberspace.

You have a lot of reasons, then, to park a PC in your waiting room, especially when you consider that you're dealing with a captive audience. As patients discover the health benefits of computer technology, they may forget they've been waiting for 20 minutes.

Do you have a computer question? Write to Robert Lowes, the editor of this column, at Medical Economics magazine, 200 S. Bemiston Ave., Suite 306, St. Louis, MO 63105. You can also fax your question to 314-727-2214, or send an e-mail to mecomp@medec.com. Sorry, but we are unable to answer readers individually.

The author is a computer consultant in Syracuse.

 

Rosemarie Nelson. Computer Consult: Put a PC in your waiting room!. Medical Economics 2001;17:26.