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Improving Practice Efficiency With Convenience Applications

Computerized practice management systems appeared about thirty years ago. Their major selling point? To automate humans out of as many processes as possible to reduce error and improve efficiency. Medical practices are attempting to achieve those same goals through the use of  electronic medical records (EMR) systems. But trying to eliminate humans entirely from the practice of medicine is a fool’s errand. Relying increasingly on technology without acknowledging the human element is a recipe for failure.

People will always be an integral part of the practice of medicine but there are ways that technology can leverage their effort for the better. Known as ‘convenience applications,’ these software programs range from free to under a couple of thousand dollars – compared to tens of thousands of dollars for your typical EMR or practice management system. And in contrast to the latter, convenience apps are specifically designed to assist humans to be more productive and profitable doing those tasks which can’t be completely automated. They help your staff do the right things (effectiveness) and do the things right (efficiency).

Due in large part to the ubiquity of such devices as mobile devices, these apps can be found in a multitude of areas from time and task management to collaboration and communication. If you own an iPhone or other smart phone, you’re probably using several of these already.

So how can these help you in your practice, you may ask? Let’s just take two areas of interest as an example, process documentation and project management.

Process documentation

Your medical practice is nothing but a bunch of processes. But, as W. Edward Deming, a pioneer in quality management, once said, ” If you can’t describe your process you don’t know what you’re doing.” Simply having well-trained, knowledgeable employees doesn’t help you very much if these employees leave and take their knowledge with them. By documenting all of your processes, you can standardize them, squeeze the variability out of their execution, and ‘clone’ your A-teams by ensuring the transfer of that knowledge.

If you are a solo practitioner with a handful of employees, you may think this is overkill. You are constantly teaching your staff how to do various tasks, so what’s the use of writing things down? But what happens when employees leave and you find yourself repeating this process ad nauseum?

A slightly bigger practice is more likely to document things (once) in a written employee training manual, but this is of little use in the middle of a busy clinic day. This is what is known as “just-in-case” learning, and it relies on filling workers’ minds with tons of information that they may or may not ever need to use. It also requires constant retraining and reinforcement so that, should that knowledge ever be needed, the employee will hopefully remember it.

On the other hand, documenting your processes, ideally in a digital format, employs “just-in-time” learning. All that a new or temporary worker would need to know is how to access your process flow maps and follow the specific steps as illustrated. And an existing worker could fill in for an absent one without having to formally cross-train for that position – she can merely consult the documented processes and get the job done. Another great feature of digital process documentation is the ability to use employee feedback to constantly tweak processes for improvement. In contrast, an employee manual merely tells workers what to do but not necessarily how to do it better, and is only updated infrequently.

Examples of Process Apps: SmartDraw, Google Docs, Microsoft Visio, Gliffy.

Project management

Anything that takes two or more steps and has a beginning and an end is called a project. This can be anything from a simple remodeling of an exam room to something as complex as implementing electronic medical records in your practice. Keeping true to the concept of knowledge sharing, project management should not take place in someone’s head but in a tool specifically designed to promote collaboration.

Project management apps can display timelines with dependencies, task staff members with automated reminders, and allow managers to display the progress of the project at a glance. They keep everyone on the same page at all times. And they are more flexible than calendars. Just try scheduling a multi-step project in a calendar and see what happens if one of those steps has to be postponed: chaos.

Examples of Project Management apps: MindManager, Basecamp HQ, Microsoft Project, ProjectPlace.

Smart practices are efficient ones. By using “convenience” apps, your practice can match the productivity and profitability gains an EMR system gives you at a fraction of the cost.

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