The paperless plunge


The paperless plunge

Four hospital leaders discuss their experience using practice software in the real world: the rewards, the challenges—and a few frustrations, too.
Mar 01, 2008

The only thing that anyone can count on for sure in the arena of paperless veterinary practice is that the experience is different for everyone. For one thing, practices choose their software for different reasons: to make the front desk run more smoothly, to allow doctors to go home earlier, to present a sophisticated image to clients, to stop looking for lost charts. But at the heart of most of these reasons is a single motivating theme—a desire for greater efficiency and consistency, which leads to better patient care, client service, and practice profitability.

We talked to four practice leaders—two owner doctors and two hospital administrators—about their experience with paperless practice. What do they think of their systems and the available technology at this point in time? We got an earful, and we'll let you in on what we heard.

But first, some definitions are in order. What exactly are we talking about when we say "paperless" anyway? While the term can mean different things to different people (and, as we'll see later, is often a misnomer), for our purposes here we're talking about a computer system that integrates appointment scheduling and reminders, electronic medical records, invoicing, and a way to store information from external sources such as labs and referral hospitals. While some software does these basics and no more, others are more sophisticated, offering the ability to network with diagnostic equipment and digital imaging technology.

So whether you're thinking about just throwing away the paper appointment book or you're ready to outfit every workstation to view digital radiographs, let the insights of these savvy users guide you in your next steps.

'I saved two full-time equivalents at the front desk'

The bottom line
In Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic, people have certain expectations about what good medical care entails, says Linda Wenner, practice manager at the four-doctor Cascade Animal Medical Center in Rochester. "Clients assume when they come in that we're going to be paperless," she says. "This system is an important part of the image we present—that we are a sophisticated, state-of-the-art hospital."

In 2001 Wenner and her husband, Dr. Mark Wenner, built a new facility and wired it to be paperless. But not until 2003, when a new veterinarian joined their practice after working in a paperless environment, did they begin to seriously consider the possibility. "She was a big proponent," Wenner says. "Also, my husband and I had been to a couple of CE meetings that discussed medical records from a legal aspect and the trouble doctors could get into with incomplete records. The thought that we could miss something that would come back to haunt us scared me. It made it obvious that this was the only choice."

The Cascade team had taken an initial step toward going paperless in their old building with the switch to an electronic appointment scheduling system. "We told the front desk staff we were going to take away the paper book, and they did not like it," Wenner says. So she let the receptionists keep a paper appointment book as backup. After one week they threw the book away.

Later, when the hospital was ready to go fully paperless, team members and doctors talked about the process for months beforehand. During staff meetings they would view the system on a projector screen and discuss what it would look like and how the transition would work. "When a phone call came in, how would it be different? What would the doctor's day be like?" The team discussed these issues and more.