July 1997 Bulletin

Short circuit phone tag with patients

Computer service can save time giving lab results

by Neil Baum, MD

Neil Baum, MD, is a physician in private practice in New Orleans. He writes a monthly column for American Medical News on topics of managed care, marketing and practice efficiency. He is the author of Take Charge of Your Medical PracticeóPractical Practice Techniques for the Managed Care Market (Aspen Publishers).

Did you know that the average practice must make two to three calls to reach a patient to communicate test results? Telephone tag is expensive and a poor use of physician time. Does this scenario sound familiar to you? You send a patient to the lab for a test. The patient is anxious about the results and calls your office before the results are available. However, each time the patient calls he or she is placed on hold while a nurse or staff member retrieves the chart, or spends time searching a pile of unfiled reports only to tell the patient to call back in a few days. Then the chart has to be returned to the filing cabinet.

The other alternative is to have the appropriate staff member call the patient. Often the staff will contact the patient at work where he or she often is reluctant to discuss their test results. That can lead to more telephone tag. Even if the patient is reached, they will often ask questions that are beyond the scope of the staff member's knowledge. That leads to still another round of telephone tag in order to place the doctor in touch with the patient. All of this action may occur just to tell a patient that their tests are normal.

What is the alternative to this expensive game of telephone tag? Now an automated program, Patient Results Network, (Viner Medical Software
800 613-9050) is available that will allow your patients to access their results 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Here's how it works.

After a visit with the physician, the patient is provided a card that contains a toll-free telephone number to call. The patient enters a unique identification number that corresponds to their name, chart and physician. As the lab tests or reports are completed, the physician or staff member calls the system, enters a pass code and in his or her own voice, records a message with the test results and any appropriate follow-up instructions. I usually end each phone report with, "You are welcome to call my office if you have any additional questions." This reassures patients that they have access to a physician or his or her nurse if they so desire.

The patients can retrieve the phone messages for 14 to 21 days after the physician or nurse has dictated into the system. The practice receives a weekly report documenting the activity of his or her account. The report lists the date the message was recorded, the date the message was retrieved by the patient, which results were not retrieved and how much time was spent on the system by the doctor or staff member.

Only a touch-tone phone is required to access the system. No computer or software is required. The beauty of the program is that it can be operational in 10 to 15 minutes. There is no learning curve for the physicians or the staff. The cost of the service is dependent on the volume of messages recorded. The cost averages $125 to $150 per month for one- to two-physician practices and volume discounts are available for larger practices.

All-purpose pad

How many of your drawers contain dozens of preprinted prescription pads? You can easily reduce the number of pads to two or three by having all of a single class of medications that you frequently prescribe placed on a single pad. To use the pad, circle the medication that you want to prescribe, write in the number
of tablets or pills, and circle the dosage instructions.

How does this translate to your bottom line? If you see 25 patients a day and write a total of 50 prescriptions a day and each time you use the color-coded prescription pad you save 15 to 30 seconds, then your savings results in an extra 20 to 25 minutes each day that allows you to see one to two additional patients without any added expense or stress on your staff. A savings of 20 minutes a day means an extra 100 minutes a week or a savings of 400 minutes or 6.6 hours a month. That's not an insignificant savings in time or revenue for minimal effort on your part or the part of your staff.

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