Improving Practice Efficiency Through Emerging Technologies

Oncology Business News, February 2015, Volume 4, Issue 2

The New Year offers little hope of breakthrough software improvements for medical practices, but experts say oncologists can still make 2015 a time of breakthrough productivity gains.

Owen Dahl

The New Year offers little hope of breakthrough software improvements for medical practices, but experts say oncologists can still make 2015 a time of breakthrough productivity gains.

Most practices can get far more from existing tools and personnel—if they take the time to systematically analyze their workflow, eliminate obviously counterproductive practices, and experiment with potential improvements.

“There is no magic bullet. Substantial improvement takes real effort, but it’s worth it,” said Owen Dahl, a consultant with Medical Group Management Association. “Small improvements add up. Many offices can increase overall efficiency by 10% or more. That’s like adding 2 free workers to a staff of 20,” Dahl said.

Many practices, for example, can save time by making better use of online portals that allow patients to view test results and communicate with doctors, nurses, and staff.

The basic technology arrived a decade ago amid predictions it would delight patients and practices alike. Patients would get an easier way to pay bills, manage appointments, view test results, and request refills. Practices would get a system that streamlined (and eventually automated) those time-consuming tasks and eliminated the need to call patients about upcoming appointments.

Only a few studies published to date measure such claims against reality, but such studies generally find that patient portals actually deliver much of what they promise.

A much-cited paper published a decade ago in the Journal of General Internal Medicine compared 6 primary practices that bought early portal software with 9 that did not. It found that offices with portals typically dealt with 13.7% fewer patient contacts than offices with no portals (P = .025).

Portal technology has improved since then and people feel more comfortable communicating online. Newer reports from individual practices seem to reflect these trends. They typically suggest that robust portals and aggressive efforts to get patients using those portals can decrease practice call volume by 30% or more.

Using Portals

Yet many oncologists have yet to roll out portals with the sort of functionality that truly reduces (or eliminates) the time staff members must spend on a wide variety of activities. Their ‘portals’ are little more than glorified e-mail systems that let patients view some records online.

Many other practices pay vendors for portals but fail to notify patients about their availability. Federal records indicate that a solid majority of medical offices now offer some sort of portal, but a 2014 survey by the consultancy Technology Advice found that less than half of all patients realized that their doctors provided such a service.

Patients obviously cannot serve themselves when practices fail to give them the necessary tools or to make them aware of those tools, but offices that want to maximize self-service must do more than buy and advertise good portals. Case studies suggest that enrollment drives are the key to portal use. “Practices that sign patients up and walk them through the portal while they’re actually in the office can often get enrollment rates over 50%,” said Elizabeth Woodcock, a consultant who has written several books about managing medical practices.

“But practices should not push enrollment at all until they offer a quality portal that gives patients an easy way to do a number of things. Most people will only test your portal once, so it’s counterproductive to send them to the sort of placeholder portal that has little functionality.”

Improving Productivity

Other communication technologies can also boost worker productivity.

Most oncologists already have software that sends prescriptions directly to pharmacies and retrieves laboratory results directly from testing companies, but published research and case studies alike suggest that all practices should push themselves to use such programs whenever possible.

Some might object that electronic prescriptions take longer to write than paper prescriptions—and although some published studies disagree, others support this intuition—but research that also measures follow-up calls from pharmacies concludes the software saves time.

Indeed, a Medicare study from 2005 estimated that pharmacies call doctors with questions on 30% of all written prescriptions. Good software, on the other hand, makes it pretty hard to write an ambiguous prescription.

Seamless communication between medical offices and pharmacies has stoked demand for seamless communication between electronic health records (EHRs) among various medical offices. The ability to share patient records (with patient consent, of course) would obviously save all practices a tremendous amount of drudgework, and it will come—some day.

Some have actually predicted that 2015 will be the year of EHR ‘interoperability,’ and such predictions may come true, in the sense that 2015 may be the year the federal government effectively forces vendors to start working seriously in that direction, but most observers doubt that 2015 (or 2016) will see the actual EHR upgrades that make seamless data transfers a reality.

There are, however, some immediate options for practices that want to share more patient information with more organizations. If those practices operate in a market that’s dominated by a single health system, they can adopt whatever EHR the dominant system uses. If they operate in markets with no dominant providers, they can adopt whatever EHR sells best in their area.

Switching from one EHR to another currently ranks among the world’s least pleasant activities—some say vendors intentionally keep their systems incompatible to lock in customers—but it can pay off for operations that made poor initial choices. EHRs vary widely, not only in their ability to communicate with other software, but also in their underlying functionality.

Some systems, according to consultants who frequently work with oncologists, offer many more cancer-focused features than others.

The worst systems, for example, hardly acknowledge that oncologists often buy and administer medications, rather than just send patients to the pharmacy. The best start with each patient’s long-term treatment plan and attempt to take it from there: using records on patient weight to determine how much medication each patient will need at each visit, ordering those medications so they arrive just in time, reminding patients when they need to come in, giving each nurse daily instructions for each patient, and then billing patients.

Such ambitious systems do have their glitches, they tend to be expensive, and they often require more human intervention than originally expected, particularly when staff members begin to use them. For any practice that really wants to boost productivity, however, they do merit consideration.

Asynchronous Communication

Another practice that merits consideration, at least for practices that manage some patients on a fee-for-outcome rather than a fee-for-service basis, goes by the name of ‘asynchronous communication.’

At its most basic level, the term encompasses any form of back-and-forth that doesn’t require providers to respond to patients in real time. Simple e-mail technically qualifies as asynchronous communication, and advocates of the practice initially hoped that something so basic could boost productivity at doctors’ offices.

E-mail generally fulfills those hopes in simple cases where providers can resolve an issue with a single e-mail. Office workers set aside a certain time for e-mail and speed through a crowded inbox rather than getting randomly interrupted by the phone.

The benefit of e-mail declines, however, as exchanges grow longer. A 10-message ‘conversation’ with patients about a relatively complex topic takes caregivers more time than a single phone call. (This problem explains why basic patient portals that essentially exchange phone calls for e-mails save time for some things but not others.)

The problem with e-mail became apparent around the same time that separate research demonstrated that doctors performed as well, but saved no time at all, when they substituted face-to-face visits with videoconferences.

Shortly thereafter, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital devised a concept they called the ‘virtual visit.’ Rather than using videoconferences or face-to-face meetings for routine follow-up consultations, they began sending patients questionnaires that covered all the relevant topics. Patients responded at their convenience. Doctors then reviewed those responses and took whatever steps they would have taken at an actual appointment.

“We have done this with several thousand patients now, and the results have been striking,” said Ronald F. Dixon, MD, director of the Virtual Practice Project at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Medicine.

“Patients and clinicians both tend to enjoy virtual visits because they provide the same quality of care in far less time than face-to-face visits. On average, clinicians spent about 18 minutes per patient doing these visits in person and then documenting them afterward, but just 3.5 minutes per patient with virtual visits. Some of that stems from the fact that reading is faster than talking. Some stems from the fact that patients do most of the documentation themselves by filling out the questionnaire,” Dixon said.

Dixon believes that many oncology practices already have all the tools they’d need to begin a virtual visit program and that the system would work particularly well for them. Indeed, the very idea of virtual visits occurred to Dixon while he was shepherding his father to a seemingly endless series of routine follow-ups with his oncologist.

“I know my father valued the relationship he had with his oncology team — but if there was a way that he could replace some of his visits with that trusted team in a more convenient way, then he would have jumped at the opportunity.”


The biggest obstacle that Dixon sees is financial. Health insurers have generally declined to compensate doctors for asynchronous virtual visits. Some insurers will pay for the service, however, and doctors who get paid by the patient rather than the visit have every incentive to experiment with potential money-savers. Such experiments need not involve revolutionary technology or revolutionary ideas.

Consultants who work with doctors say they can often achieve double-digit productivity gains by eliminating obviously counterproductive habits that arise by chance and endure because no one ever stops to consider them.

  • For all specialties, nurses spend several minutes asking questions and writing down answers for the doctor who then ignores what the nurse wrote and asks the patients all of the same questions a second time.
  • Many oncology practices refuse to schedule a first visit with a patient until they receive patient records (which usually takes 3 to 5 days to arrive), scheduling the appointment from information the patient provides directly, and making adjustments in those few cases when the records necessitate some sort of change.
  • For all specialties, practices try to minimize the time they spend waiting for patients by planning to see them slightly after their scheduled appointment times. Patients retaliate by coming late. Practices respond by delaying more. The very concept of time eventually becomes virtually meaningless and everyone suffers.”

Not every office makes these particular mistakes, but nearly every practice makes these types of mistakes because the people who run them care more about medicine than workflow analysis.”

“We find that at least of quarter of every employee’s effort at a typical small practice is utterly wasted—meaningless at best, actively counterproductive at worst,” said Dahl. “That sounds terrible, but practices should view it as an opportunity. Substantial improvement is very possible.” ”