For years, experts have extolled the virtues of going paperless for a medical practice. Paperless saves the environment, is more convenient, and saves time and man-hours – or so the story goes. While these are definitely true benefits, the prospect of going completely paperless has been so daunting that few practices have accomplished it.
Indeed, many wonder if it’s even possible. How can a practice completely eliminate all the piles of paperwork – the records, the statements, the reports – that it uses during a typical year? Even with advances in modern communications technology, such a prospect can seem too challenging to overcome.
Fortunately, even if you can’t become completely paperless, there are steps your practice can take to streamline your bookkeeping and records to the point where most of your process is electronic, not paper-based. Doing so will save time and money and incur all the benefits modern technology brings to a provider’s office.
How Long Does It Take?
The first thing many providers think of when evaluating a paperless office (and by “paperless” we mean mostly paperless) is, “How long will this process take?”
The answer to this question largely depends on what technology is already in place. If you have already incorporated electronic record-keeping into your systems, and have staff who are reasonably trained to run the program, you’re ahead. But on average, it can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months (or up to 24 months for large practices) to go paperless.
The best way to manage the time is to do everything step by step, stage by stage, piece by piece. Identify the first system you’d like to streamline, and focus on that system. For many providers, that is getting into electronic health records (EHRs) since that has ramifications for payments and regulations. Indeed, many providers have already begun the transition to EHRs, and more will continue to do so over the coming months.
Then, you can tackle paperless billing, which is a significant challenge for many practices but one that can pay dividends down the road.
Follow the Process
Establishing a process is the best thing a practice can do to go paperless.
It starts with the practice management software. This software will be the nerve center of your operations. It’s very difficult to run a paperless, electronic practice without a central practice management program. The best thing about these pieces of software is that they are (usually) intuitive (although no software package is ever completely perfect).
Next, evaluate the infrastructure needs of the office. Going paperless means more computers and more hardware. You’ll have to evaluate what hardware you’ll need, and may even have to consult with an IT consultant or engineer to fully analyze your office’s needs.
Next, you’ll incorporate digital technologies like scanning paper records, uploading paper records (now digital records) into a secure storage system – such as a physical server or, more commonly, a cloud-based server – and configuring software that handles things like billing, filing claims, etc.
Finally, you’ll need to incorporate robust data protection. Your communications will need to be secure to make sure you are complying with HIPAA and other regulations concerning security of electronic health information for your patients. This is often the last step of implementation, but it isn’t necessarily the last thing you’ll consider.
The process may be longer or shorter depending on your needs, but the outline above is a general idea of how it all works.
Proper Planning Is Key
Planning is the key to success when going paperless for a medical office. A plan will enable the process to proceed smoothly and efficiently, and can actually save thousands of dollars in costs and man-hours. Training will need to be incorporated into this for your staff, so don’t forget to account for that in your planning process.
Working with a third-party provider to handle revenue cycle management – which includes billing, filing, and the other processes that occur regularly in an office – can help cut down on the costs and time it takes to go paperless, since the provider will more than likely have electronic processes already in place. Consult with a provider for help implementing your desired solution.
Going paperless is worth it. While you won’t be able to completely eliminate paper, you can make great strides toward cutting back on paper and reaping the benefits of a paperless environment.