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Do You Need Your Own IT Department?

Should your practice outsource IT (information technology) or hire your own in-house computer specialist? fixing-computer.jpg Whether you decide to implement an electronic medical records system now or five years down the road, the movement towards a practice management approach that makes more use of advanced technologies is already underway. At root, the practice of medicine is a business like any other, and today’s physicians must be prepared to embrace state-of-the-art tools or face the possibility of being edged out by more tech-savvy competitors.

But as more medical practices face the challenge of transitioning from conventional paper records to EMR systems, practice administrators and physicians alike are being confronted with some tough decisions in areas in which most have little, if any, experience.

The logical thing to do is to seek assistance from an expert, and there are plenty out there to choose from. If fact, the advent of EMR and related tools has given rise to a whole subcategory of IT specialists whose primary focus is the health care industry.

But how much help do you need, exactly? Does it make sense to outsource your IT needs, or is it more cost-effective to hire your own in-house computer specialist?

For most smaller practices, it would likely be overkill to hire in a full-time IT employee. IT skills are in high demand, and these experts don’t come cheap. For defined-scope projects, it makes more sense to seek out and retain a local IT firm whose areas of expertise are a good match to your practice’s current and future needs.

Ideally, the firm you select will have a successful track record of completing IT projects for other practices and will be able to commit to on-call availability for future site visits and consultations when the inevitable problems pop up down the line. (Medical technology expert Dana Blankenhorn recently discussed several more IT staffing options in an enlightening ZDNet piece.)

Medium-sized practices with more resources can often afford to contract with an IT specialist or firm for more customized care and attention in the long-term. This type of arrangement could include both ongoing projects and weekly or monthly site visits for “tune-ups” and maintenance. Additionally, it may make sense to invest in targeted IT training for a particularly tech-savvy employee who is already on staff and can troubleshoot in a crisis.

For larger practices, however, having an IT specialist on board full-time is an investment that will definitely pay off in the long run. In fact, this arrangement proved to a necessity in our large practice. With ten physicians, more than 140 employees divided among 5 locations, and a large-scale EMR implementation on the horizon, we decided to take the somewhat unusual step of hiring two full-time IT specialists.

Now that we’re several years past the EMR implementation process, these two stay busy with employee training, troubleshooting, and service calls. Lest you think that this must be an unreasonable financial drain on the business, our IT ‘department’ will soon become another source of revenue. Our IT staff has developed a few customized software solutions which were not commercially available and which we hope will soon be ready for sale to the public. So, although a few of our partners expressed some initial resistance to the notion of hiring an IT specialist, we’re now receiving kudos for being resourceful and thinking outside of the box.

If you’re still not sure which approach is best suited to your business, it never hurts to start small. Hire a freelancer or a part-timer, or contract with a local firm for occasional services. You can adjust your approach as your technology needs evolve over time. Just try to maintain a proactive, forward-thinking approach in making your IT staffing decisions—you never know how far tomorrow’s tools will be able to take your practice!

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