Collaboration Technologies Can Help Practices Recover from Pandemic Challenges

By making the care process more efficient, technology can relieve administrative burdens, help clinicians participate more fully in integrated, patient-centered care and refill depleted practice coffers.

Clinicians and staff at medical practices across the United States are surely breathing sighs of relief now that the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic are behind us.

Providers have been particularly troubled as they try to keep practices solvent and operating after the country first shut down in March 2020. During that initial closure, ambulatory visits dropped by 60%. By the end of July, however, visit volumes rebounded to 10% less than levels seen before the pandemic.

Still, the huge decrease in patient volumes created a preventive care vacuum that clinicians tried to fill. But with only so many hours in the workday and a static number of clinical and administrative staffers, providers have felt there is little they could do to increase capacity.

Much like telehealth visits and remote monitoring took center stage during the pandemic, emerging collaboration and interoperability technologies can help practices do more with the same staff. By making the care process more efficient, technology can relieve administrative burdens, help clinicians participate more fully in integrated, patient-centered care and refill depleted practice coffers.

Practices Struggle During Downturn

More than four in 10 patients skipped medical care during the first five months of the pandemic, including 29% who missed a preventive care visit and 26% who didn’t show for a general outpatient appointment. Consequently, between February and August, physician practice revenue dropped 32%.

A July survey of 3,500 physicians showed that 8% had permanently closed their practices, with another 4% planning to do so within the next year.

Conducted in September 2020, a survey of primary care clinicians showed that a physician in nearly 20% of practices had either retired early or was planning to do so. Another 15% indicated that someone had left or was planning to leave for other reasons. The same survey showed that about 50% of physicians pegged their mental exhaustion as the highest they’d experienced, and 7% worried they couldn’t keep their practices solvent past December.

Besides the heartache of closing practices—even temporarily—and furloughing staff, providers also had to contend with higher supply expenses for protective equipment, spoiled supplies such as vaccines that expired during the downturn, and ongoing expenses for rent and equipment.

As practices continue to ramp up, leaders should be examining every area of operation, every piece of technology and every staff member to bring new efficiencies to the practice. Healthcare is still plagued with paper processes and suffers from inefficient workflows, which ultimately reduces productivity. And although the number of required healthcare jobs has been growing, productivity hasn’t kept pace. Over the period from 2001 to 2016, healthcare accounted for 9% of U.S. economic growth but created 29% of net new jobs, indicating lower productivity in relationship to job creation. This is not a problem we can throw more people at. Only efficient technology can scale at a level necessary to lower costs.

A small-scale study aimed at the Quadruple Aim — reducing costs while improving population health, patient satisfaction and team well-being — demonstrated that small changes can have an oversized impact on productivity. Reducing the administrative burden on practices can increase throughput, making staff more productive and efficient. The intervention group was able to offer 48% more patient appointment slots than the control group.

Paving the Way to More Efficient Care

Effective communications technology that strengthens ties among your practice and other providers and healthcare facilities throughout the care continuum is critical to your future success. New rules from the CMS require electronic communications among an increasingly large variety of healthcare providers, including primary care physicians.

These rules are designed to increase interoperability and patient-centered care as people transition among providers and care settings. For example, one newly enacted rule requires hospitals, psychiatric hospitals and critical access hospitals to send electronic notices of admission, discharge, or transfer (ADT) to established healthcare providers. Another opens up patient access to their health records by setting rules around information blocking that encourage interoperative care.

As another example, telemedicine visits and remote monitoring provided a lifeline for many practices last year as patients avoided in-person treatment. Telehealth visits comprised about 30% of total outpatient visits from mid-March through mid-June 2020, a 23-fold increase from Jan. 1 to March 17, 2020, according to a study.

Practices must embrace new technology in order to fully participate in patient care.

Modern Communications Fuel Interoperability Strategies

However, 90% of healthcare organizations still use standalone fax machines as a communications source. Providers send and receive patient data, referrals, and other data, including protected health information (PHI) that then must be collected, collated, scanned and attached to the patient record, a slow and painstaking process that reduces administrative efficiency and creates barriers to care.

In the new interoperative care environment, practices that make referrals, for example, want to know that referred patients are immediately contacted for an appointment. In the same vein, ADT notifications should be acted on immediately, so the continuity of care is maintained as patients transfer among settings. Increasingly, providers and facilities are paid one rate for services across settings, which makes the timeliness of care critical to prevent readmissions.

Paper faxes require additional processing steps to become actionable, including manual data entry that can introduce errors that compromise patient care. Cloud fax technology and more robust communications platforms convert faxes to electronic documents that can flow directly to the patient record and arrive at an administrator’s inbox for immediate attention. Additionally, EHRs can be mined with natural language processing and artificial intelligence capabilities to help practices better understand—and care for—their patient populations.

Imagine creating cohorts of patients with similar conditions for chronic care monitoring that can bring in additional revenue while at the same time meeting quality improvement measurements. Reducing manual processes also frees up office staff to proactively contact patients who have missed visits or are due for labs and preventive screenings. Responding immediately to referrals and ADT notifications endears your practice to referral partners, increasing the likelihood of continued collaboration.

Conclusion

Physician practices were hit particularly hard by the pandemic as offices closed and patients delayed care even after offices reopened. Now that patient visits are returning to prepandemic levels, savvy providers are exploring ways to do more with the same staff.

A robust communications platform designed to support interoperability can not only replace the physical fax machine, it can help a practice become more efficient and collaborative to increase referrals, patient and clinician satisfaction, and revenue.

Author Information

Bevey Miner serves as Health IT Strategy/Chief Marketing Officer for J2 Global Cloud Services, who are the creators of the Consensus healthcare data-sharing platform and eFax Corporate, the leader in HIPAA-compliant healthcare fax technology. With over 20 years of experience in healthcare technology and digital health, she has been instrumental in leading strategy, product management, business development, marketing and commercialization.