Health care providers opening to technology

May 14, 2011

Need a restaurant reservation, a movie ticket or a hotel room? As the saying goes, “There’s an app for that.”

But if you’re looking for a teeth cleaning or mammogram, an old-fashioned phone call may be your only hope.

The use of Web-based communications within service industries is so pervasive, and becoming increasingly commonplace on smart phones and other mobile devices, that all the health care industry can do at this point is play catch-up.

Some providers are charging ahead with technology-based programs, while other hospitals, doctor groups and practices are dragging their heels into the future.

Late last year, Community Health Network launched the country’s first smart phone application for advance scheduling at its six central Indiana MedCheck walk-in care centers.

The WebAhead service allows patients to search for available openings at any MedCheck and secure appointments up to 24 hours in advance using a BlackBerry, iPhone, Android or other smart phone. The service is also available through a Web browser to desktop and laptop computer users.

Community has offered online scheduling for its affiliated physicians since 2005 through a consumer portal on its home page. In developing WebAhead, the Indianapolis-based system pushed to be at the forefront of health care technology.

“Over the last three years, there has been a real evolution nationwide in using technology,” said Dan Rench, vice president of Community’s eBusiness division.

WebAhead differs from patient portals and other electronic services because it offers real-time scheduling. When a user selects an appointment, that time slot is immediately filled and there is no wait for a confirmation.

Community operates MedCheck locations in Carmel, Noblesville, Greenwood, Castleton, Anderson and on Post Road near East 16th Street.

As with call-ahead seating at a restaurant, WebAhead allows patients to virtually eliminate their wait. Instead of the average 90-minute wait for a walk-in patient, WebAhead users are seen within three minutes.

“It’s been hugely successful,” Rench said.

As urgent care centers, walk-in drugstore clinics and other venues proliferate, providing on-the-go consumers with options like WebAhead may seem like a no-brainer for the $2.5 trillion health care industry. But some have been surprisingly resistant, if not downright stubborn, when it comes to giving patients more control over how they communicate with their doctor’s office.

So says Paul Keckley, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. “The most threatened are physicians,” he said. “All of our polling shows that what consumers want the most is what doctors fear the most.”

Keckley, a leading expert on U.S. health care reform and regular TV news contributor, calls out doctors for their “squeamishness” and aversion to change. For the most part, however, he predicts attitudes will change as new generations of physicians come up the ranks.

“The younger docs coming into the system get it,” Keckley said. “They all expect technology to be a major part of how they practice.”

In the meantime, lawmakers and federal policymakers are giving reluctant providers a firm nudge toward greater use of technology. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the federal stimulus package, promised $2 billion in funding and loans to health care providers that adopt electronic record-keeping.

Beech Grove-based St. Francis Health, which operates four hospitals in the Indianapolis area, will have its electronic medical record system fully operational by this summer. Eventually, patients will have the ability to manage appointments via the system, St. Francis notes on its website.

Officials at the state’s largest health care system, locally based Indiana University Health, declined to be interviewed.

As doctors get the systems up and running—Keckley estimates 9 percent of providers nationwide have done so—they will be much better positioned to introduce online- and smart-phone-based scheduling.

At the same time, hospitals are in the running for larger Medicare payouts under a new value-based purchasing program. Beginning in July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will monitor hospitals for certain criteria, including patient experience, to determine where to direct nearly $1 billion in Medicare funding.

The federal government and insurance companies will continue to emphasize the “customer satisfaction” aspect of health care to encourage greater efficiencies in the system, Keckley said. In the end, patients will benefit the most with new services such as online scheduling and, most important, better care.

“As [providers] leverage technology, I think we are going to see the system transition from a patient-oriented system to a consumer-oriented system,” he said.

And the good news for doctors?

“The financial upside for them,” Keckley said, “is that they get to stay in business.”•

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