Editorial Physicians Should Embrace Technology In Their Practices

According to a new study, there’s a wide gap between what doctors in Massachusetts think of computer technology in the workplace and how they’ve actually used it.
The study, conducted by the Mass. Medical Society (MMS), aimed to assess the level of computerization in Massachusetts clinical practices in outpatient settings and to evaluate the attitudes of physicians toward the use of information technology.

According to the survey, nearly 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of Bay State physicians believe computers are fast becoming a necessity in clinical practices. At the same time, however, most doctors have put that technology to use in administrative functions, not clinical ones.

“The results clearly show that physicians understand the advantages of using information technology,” said Dr. Thomas E. Sullivan, MMS president. “We know computerization can provide benefits for quality improvement, patient safety, and enhanced efficiency. We’ve made great strides on the administrative side, but, despite widespread recognition of how useful it can be, we’re progressing slowly on the clinical side.”

According to the survey, most physicians have already implemented computerization for such administrative functions as patient scheduling (71{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}), billing and payment systems (71{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}), making claims (69{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}), registration of patient details (71{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}), managing practice finances (67{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}), and payroll (62{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}). In addition doctors tend to believe that computers can have a significant impact on health care. For example:

• 84{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} agree that computers can significantly improve the quality of patient care;
• 78{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} think computers have beneficial effect on interactions within the health care team;
• 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} think computers have a beneficial effect on the quality of health care; and
• 69{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} think computers can improve the quality of recording and tracking records.

However, these findings contradict how doctors actually use technology. To wit:

• 85{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} believe doctors should computerize writing prescriptions, yet 49{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} do not intend to do so;
• 89{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} believe doctors should computerize recording patient summaries, yet 49{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} do not intend to do so; and
• 83{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} believe doctors should computerize recording treatment records, yet 49{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} do not intend to do so.

The survey arrives at a time when the industry is focusing increasingly on patient safety. And safety — particularly in the area of accurate prescribing — is certainly one of the key benefits of streamlining the modern doctor’s office through technology.

For instance, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, medication errors, many caused by illegible prescriptions and confusion caused by similar-sounding drug names, contribute to more than 7,000 deaths annually. And more than 86{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of mistakes are administrative or process errors, such as filing patient information in the wrong place, ordering the wrong tests, or prescribing the wrong medication.

The MMS survey suggests that time and startup costs — including more computers and staff training — are factors in the slow movement to computerize offices, but there are some programs available to ease the transition.

For example, the MMS has teamed with two health plans, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Tufts, on a pilot incentive plan. The HMOs will spend $3 million to roll out E-prescribing technology to the 3,400 highest prescribers in their networks. Those practices, representing about 16{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of all physicians in Massachusetts, will be eligible to receive free BlackBerry and PocketPC handheld devices from the health plans, as well as a year of paid subscription fees and several months of wireless service or high-speed Internet access.

We think that’s a welcome incentive if it gives physicians firsthand experience in how computer technology can not streamline their practices, saving administrative time that can be better spent on patient care, as well as saving money.

Evidence suggests technology can also save lives. And that should be the most important consideration of all. –