How technology cuts staff costs

May 6, 2005

Even a modest amount of automation can do wonders for office efficiency.

The more time your staff spends on routine, repetitive duties, the more you pay for those tasks. That's why even a small investment in information technology can deliver a handsome return.

By simply storing your transcribed notes in Microsoft Word files, notes Rosemarie Nelson, a healthcare informatics consultant in Syracuse, you can reduce chart pulls for patient phone calls. With your notes on their computer screens, front-desk personnel can answer many questions immediately instead of having to call the patient back. As a result, they can cut their phone time in half while providing better service.

The next step up, says Nelson, is to get a high-speed scanner and a basic document management program like PaperPort Pro. A scanner adequate for a small practice costs less than $1,000, and the software, under $200. For that investment, you can have staffers scan in incoming labs and other documents, broken down by category. Combined with online visit notes, this gives you a simple electronic record that can save further staff time. According to Nelson, 30 percent of chart pulls are done to answer questions about lab results. With labs online, many of those pulls be-come unnecessary.

Nelson advises practices to think about using technology to expand capacity rather than to reduce staff. "The value of these tools is that they free up staff. As a result, they increase capacity to see more patients. If you can see one more patient a day, and the average charge is $55, it adds up."

Here's how some practices with clinical information systems are using them to pare overhead and boost revenues.

Document management cuts overhead Family Practice Associates of Lexington, KY, which includes eight family physicians and two physician assistants, has used a document management program called IMPACT.MD since 1999. While today, this system would cost $7,000 to $10,000 per doctor, including hardware, software, and implementation, it has helped reduce the Lexington group's overhead from 59 percent to 52 percent of revenues-a very substantial sum of money that's reflected in doctors' earnings.

Here are some ways in which document management and electronic prescribing have improved office efficiency:

By saving time on routine tasks, these electronic tools free up staffers to assist doctors in other tasks. As a result, the practice has been able to add a drug dispensing service and a full-service lab. It has also brought in three new doctors without a big increase in staff. "We haven't added as much overhead as we expected to when new doctors came onboard, but have reaped the benefits of additional revenue," says group administrator Susan Miller.

How an EHR keeps staff size down A mostly primary care practice of 11 physicians and eight midlevel practitioners in Elizabethton, TN, has a staff-to-doctor ratio of 2.3:1, less than half the national average for primary care groups. By using its MedInformatix EHR to increase efficiency, the practice has been able to add more and more providers without hiring extra staff.