Intelligent integration in hearing healthcare—comprehensive data-management systems that work through all stages of audiology services, reduce duplication of data entry, and provide complete documentation—is a long-overdue concept.
Systems such as Noah or Sycle, which are designed to work with existing databases as well as independently of these data resources, can increase practice profitability. They also reduce the need to hire administrative staff for duplicative data entry, and thus lower costs for storage of patient files containing numerous reports of overlapping data. Furthermore, with an intelligent integration system in place, audiologists can focus more on patients rather than paperwork.
“It is in the best interest of any practice to look at the value of reducing the demand of their staff on paperwork, duplicate entries, files, and charts, and allow the staff to really develop the skills to embrace patient service,” says Richard D. Mitchell, an independent, Minneapolis-based hearing healthcare practice management consultant. “Automation is the only way they will be able to do that.”
Based on the audiology and ENT practices he has worked with, Mitchell has determined that at least one third of staff time in a typical practice is devoted to administrative duties, with the bulk of that time spent on duplicate data entry. Otometrics has developed intelligent integration software to eliminate such duplication. As with the automation that Mitchell advocates, this software, called OTOsuite™, is intended to address the increasing need for a better workflow in hearing healthcare practices.
By linking the individual diagnostic and fitting tools together, the software provides users with a one-stop interface in which data flow seamlessly (see Figure 1). It enables practitioners to reduce the time spent on opening and closing individual equipment, entering data, and doing paperwork.
One example of this is how OTOsuite enables a practitioner to generate reports (see Figure 2). The electronic measurement data are used to carry out reporting directly from the interface. Sets of single reports or reports containing data from multiple pieces of equipment, such as audiometers and tympanometers, are combined into one report. This saves valuable time.
Using a simulation that compared the time required for data input before and after automation, Mitchell found that automation allowed data input to be done more than twice as fast, in 27 minutes instead of the 62 minutes it took without automation. The comparison, performed in a private practice in Minnesota, tracked the time spent on data input to identify time segments spent on specific data input activities.
Then time segments that an automated system would eliminate, such as duplicate entry and opening and closing of report sections within database systems such as NOAH, were subtracted from the total data input time to identify time savings.
“If a practice can save even an hour a day by using a systematic approach, that opens up time to serve one to three more patients a day, or up to 750 more patients a year, depending on how much time is spent with individual patients,” says Mitchell. An extra hour a day to serve patients certainly can increase revenue—and improve patient satisfaction.
PATIENTS GROW MORE NUMEROUS—AND DEMANDING
In the United States, approximately 76 million babies were born between 1946 and 1964, the years commonly recognized as starting and ending the baby boom. Today, this now-aging generation comprises a quarter of the U.S. population. This is a significant audience both because of its sheer size and because so many are in need of hearing help. An October 2006 market research study commissioned in part by The Ear Foundation found that more than half—53%—of baby boomers said they have at least a “mild” hearing loss. The study further suggests that these consumers, generally, are willing to admit to having a hearing loss.
Simply put, boomers recognize the issues they face with aging and are prepared to do something about it.
“Key customers who will be coming into audiology clinics in the coming years are of the baby boom generation, and they are used to being critical consumers who get what they want,” says Soren Holst, president of Otometrics. “They will ask for a high level of service and quality involvement, and they will want to take time.”
At the same time that the need and demand for hearing care are increasing, the shortage of students entering university audiology programs continues. The new requirement that an audiologist hold an AuD or other doctorate to enter practice makes the challenge even greater to recruit and retain students in a field in which average salaries range from $55,000 to $80,000 a year.
Together, the growing need for hearing healthcare, the ongoing industry recruitment issues, and the demand for more personalized service by a new generation of patients create a critical need for a systematic approach to reducing administrative time and providing optimal care.
“They are good customers,” says Holst of the baby boomers, “but they are deman-ding customers, too.”
ADOPTING ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORD-KEEPING
Another advantage of intelligent integration is its ability to streamline processes as the healthcare industry moves toward electronic medical record-keeping (EMR). An integrated system enables a single software data file to be uploaded into a patient data-management system rather than requiring that several files be uploaded from a variety of software systems. This reduces duplication and saves time.
Many larger healthcare institutions already are shifting to EMR, and, says Mitchell, the audiology department is a good place to start. He explains, “Many audiologists are used to working on PCs and with electronic patient data. The biggest challenge is the duplicate entry, which can be resolved with advances in technology. It's a cost-effective way to do it,” he adds, “because in audiology the basis for EMR systems is already in place.”
An easy transition to EMR will become increasingly important even for small, independent practices. It addresses both the space challenges and the accompanying overhead issues that confront practices. Furthermore, since EMR is part of the healthcare reform proposals presented by several major U.S. presidential candidates, it is likely to become the standard in U.S. healthcare.
In sum, due to a shortage in the supply of practitioners and an increasing demand for their services, the hearing healthcare industry faces a number of challenges. These range from cost and profitability to quality time for patient care.
Intelligent integration in hearing healthcare is a practical—and needed—approach to overcoming these challenges. With an intelligent integration system in place, audiologists can focus more on patients than on paperwork, thus simultaneously increasing customer satisfaction and profitability.