The Path to Paperless

Why the Healthcare World Needs a Digital Transformation

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Paper has long played an important role in the administration of healthcare systems around the world. Despite technological advancements and innovations in medical processes and electronic medical records systems, paper-based alternatives remain the predominate methods adopted by healthcare administrators. Given the benefits of paperless systems, the question that remains is, why?
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Paper is the basis of physician notes and records, insurance forms, patient forms, office correspondence, results from labs, x-rays and tests, prescriptions and patient records dating back any number of years.

Change is not easy, and accepting and integrating innovation with long-standing processes can be difficult. Though paper-based systems still predominate, there is a greater interplay between traditional and modern technological approaches. Many healthcare providers have incorporated technology to their benefit, though they have not endeavoured to become completely paperless.

Complete technological implementation is mostly reserved for primary healthcare operators, where capital is available to support digital integration and a complete system overhaul. Operating with a combination of paper-based and electronic information systems is common for healthcare providers but can be disruptive to workflow because integrated systems often result in an inefficient use of resources, both human and otherwise.

Transitioning between the two systems can result in delays or, even worse, errors, and when dealing with someone’s health and personal information, there is no room for error. However, there are some advantages to transitioning away from a paper-based system.

Paper-based systems tend to cost more than electronic systems, primarily due to the fact that a great deal of labour is dedicated to paper retrieval, filing and copying. There is also the cost of paper, copying equipment, office supplies and, of course, manual errors.

According to Quality and Safety in Healthcare’s ‘A Preliminary Taxonomy of Medical Errors in Family Practice’ (2002), eighty-six percent of mistakes that occur in family care offices were related to the failure of paper-based systems. Examples of failures included the issuance of the wrong prescription or oversights when ordering tests. These are the most common and the most preventable kinds of errors.

Paper-based systems can place a significant strain on physician performance and the ability of a clinic or practice to deliver patient-oriented care of the highest quality. Time and effort spent on administrative tasks would otherwise be dedicated to patient care and inquiry, but time is not the only thing wasted by paper-based systems.

According to Practice Greenhealth, an organization dedicated to the support and encouragement of ethical and sustainable healthcare practices, the healthcare sector creates 25.1 pounds of waste per staffed bed, with paper comprising a significant portion of the 6,600 tons of waste generated in the U.S. on a daily basis. Technology, in this case, can save both financial costs as well as the environment.

Paperless systems contribute to an improved healthcare environment for both the medical professional and the patient. Improved working conditions heighten the standard of care and the patient experience. And good documentation and workflow enable physicians and healthcare professionals to focus on the patient rather than documents, minimizing waiting times.

Paperless systems support improved and more efficient workflows, communication and document sharing to create a continuum of care. Technology can also assist with more efficient and effective inventory management and ordering, to help facilities maintain resources.

One of the most important benefits of technology is related to data analysis. By better collecting and managing data, the information can be used to conduct targeted research and databases that serve several functions. One example is a database that can recognize potential or toxic drug interactions across a patient’s digital records.

A complete system upgrade requires a significant financial commitment and can upset operations if not implemented incrementally to ensure total integration and user-readiness. The incremental implementation allows for adequate training to occur, time to develop a confidence in the staff’s ability to interface with the new technology.

Many smaller practices and healthcare systems do not have the resources to initiate a full system overhaul and are often limited by partial implementation of technology and digital systems. Low-cost, low-risk alternatives to a complete system overhaul are available and encourage even the smallest practice to make the move from paper to digital solutions.

There are existing web-based systems and workflow solutions. Online appointment scheduling is one of the most common solutions that have been integrated by healthcare providers to significantly reduce errors. The system reduces misfiling, lost files and lost time, by streamlining the admittance process.

There are multiple platforms that can drive efficiency and productivity while minimizing errors to result in improved patient care and experience. Electronic medical record (EMR) systems, as well as their more affordable, less complex alternatives – automated storage and retrieval systems – can be used separately or in conjunction with one another to provide large volume data storage and retrieval.

Using a combination of hardware and software, EMRs provide a vehicle to efficiently store and retrieve data in a secure way so as to protect sensitive personal information. Paper-to-digital uploading applications help to deal with the backlog of paper caused by the transition and alleviate the strain on human resources related to data entry.

As technology has advanced, so too have the processes. Data entry is no longer reliant on manual actions. Instead, familiar office equipment is used for the scan and upload of documents. This requires minimal training and provides healthcare professionals with useful document tracking capabilities as it fits within an organization’s existing workflow.

Web-based storage and management gives physicians and other medical professionals a single access point for healthcare records. This is key for healthcare providers who operate from multiple locations. Though EMR, web-based storage and management and the like are not completely paperless, it is a great start to offering integrated healthcare services.

For physicians, a better system of documentation lays the foundation for a more effective practice. On a very basic level, electronic records systems eliminate even the simplest challenges – such as physicians’ infamous chicken scratch handwriting – to improve the speed and ease with which information can be accessed and processed.

Despite the many proven benefits of paperless healthcare administration systems, obstructions to their implementation still exist. As old habits die hard, there is often resistance from the medical staff who find paper familiar and would prefer to remain in their comfort zones. New generations are more likely to opt for the latest available technological solutions.

There is also a financial burden associated with a technology overhaul that many smaller practices are not able to support, not only for the initial investment but for the maintenance and repair of the system. Others worry that there will be a substantial investment only for the technology to become obsolete in a couple of years.

Standardization in digital solutions could greatly benefit the industry as a whole. It would enable consistency across operations, making systems more common, user-friendly and thus, make healthcare administration more efficient. It would also make for strong healthcare networks in the interests of providing quality care while lowering costs and improving patient outcomes.

It is important for medical professionals and healthcare administrators to be involved in the development of digital solutions. Their input can improve the technological interface while addressing many of the barriers to widespread implementation and integration. There is currently no standard which means there is a great deal of opportunity in the market.

Healthcare practices and providers can choose a preferred digital system to meet individual needs, and many times, an aggregate system of both paper-based and technology is the desired solution. A workflow assessment can help deduce the needs of the facility or operation and identify an ideal solution.

Of those medical facilities that have adopted and integrated digitized technological solutions, over ninety percent reported being satisfied. The facilities were pleased with the speed and ease at which medical records are retrieved and stored, how prescriptions can be refilled, how communication occurs across offices, the quality of care and the resulting limitation of errors.

The use of electronic, paperless solutions in a healthcare setting can have significant effects on long-term and preventative care, improving the healthcare experience for the patient and the medical team as well. Digital solutions can drive down costs while improving productivity, efficiency, workflow and overall satisfaction and care.

The benefits of implementing digital healthcare solutions are clear, but obstacles must be overcome to actualize these advantages. There will certainly be some hindrances to widespread adoption of paperless systems, yet it is a move the industry is making and it is one that will change healthcare provision in the long term.

April 26, 2017, 1:34 PM EDT