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Creating Cost-Efficient Primary Care Medical Practices By Using 21st Century Technology

Few business models can top the inefficiencies, high costs, and overuse of manpower as primary health care.  Every minor infection,  cut, runny nose, goopy eye, hack, itch, rash, low back pain, stomach ache, urinary tract infection, tick bite, bee sting … ad infinitum must run the required gauntlet of the five-office-staff  “touch points” in order to be treated.  Let’s count them:

1. Scheduler,
2. Reception / intake window,
3. Nurse,
4. Check-out window, and
5. Billing specialist

Once you’ve seen your doctor and interfaced with all of the “touch-point” staff, next comes the game of musical chairs between the patient, doctor, and insurance company to see who’s going to pay the bill. This game often lasts months and includes pitched battles before a resolution is reached, typically when someone gives up resentfully from sheer exhaustion. All this hassle might be understandable for a surgery, hospitalization or very expensive procedure, but instead we play this game for the simplest booboo. For day-to-day care, this translates into the American people playing this game at least 5 million times a day.

Every practicing family physician/internist’s office employs roughly 4.5 full-time people per provider who slog through the piles of paperwork needed in a third-party driven model. On the insurance side, it can be an even higher body count, with staff lined up to review the claims, police transactions, audit doctors’ notes, data mine patients’ data, review negotiated rates to be paid to each physician, and cut the checks.  Instead of a model where the patient gets a direct service and pays an immediate and transparent price, we create the illusion that health care is “free” and then wonder why it costs so much money to see the doctor. Just look at the people we need to pay in order to receive our free care.

Automation has not reached health care as it has with nearly every other U.S. industry. Rather than streamlining healthcare through technology, we instead keep adding new layers bureaucracy, including administrators who find purpose by helping to improve the authorization process, or the reminder systems for patients not to miss their appointment, or the services which broker the whopping cost of care if  the patient gets stuck with the bill, or act as navigators of  “the system” for people who need to figure out who to see next in the process of care. To stay viable, twenty-first century medical care will have to address these inefficiencies because they create barriers to rapid and transparent care.

The ideal future family doctor’s office will be automated and render most office staff obsolete.  Patients will schedule an appointment online without the hassle of a receptionist. Doctors and nurse practitioners will answer incoming phones and emails from their patients thereby immediately addressing medical questions, thus reducing delays and getting 50% of people what they need without an office visits when one isn’t needed. Patients will log-in and get copies of their personal health records that are linked to the doctors’ electronic medical record so that they can have a copy of their labs, vaccines, and update their own personal information whenever they need it.  The bill for service will become transparent, immediate and mostly policed by the patient who has a personal stake in the price. No one cries “foul” faster than a person who sees a bill and wonders if he’s been ripped off.

By re-engineering the dynamics of the office visit, far fewer doctor’s office of the support staff are required.  Instead of the 4.5 full-time staff per provider, a practice set up like what we’ve done at DocTalker Family Medicine requires only one employee per provider. The DocTalker model, which is a cash-only practice, uses computer, telecommunications and internet technology to enable the clinician to perform functions previously done by the front and back office staff, such as the receptionist, scheduler, in-window, out-window, billing specialist, and office assistant.  Thus a person’s care is centralized through one person (the doctor) rather than many, leading to efficiency and reduction in overhead costs. If competition is encouraged, this process will only get better and less expensive.

Shouldn’t this be a consideration when overhauling cost efficiencies for healthcare reform?

Let us hope that it is.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD

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