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Patient Experience: Is a Smart Therapy Documentation System Important?

Written by: Shawn Hewitt on Friday, March 31, 2017 Posted in: Outpatient Rehab


Every year, there seem to be more and more regulations to follow, processes to adapt to, and documentation requirements to build in. For physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, this creates more obstacles to doing the primary job, which is care for the patients. Let’s revisit that last sentence. The fact of the matter is that if you are thinking that adapting to all the change IS NOT part of the primary task of caring for your patients, then you are probably banging your head against the wall. In other words, you may as well accept that adapting to new regulations and ever-changing documentation requirements are necessary to successfully caring for patients.

The Patient Experience 

A big part of caring for patients is making sure they are provided with a quality experience and effective care. Now, let me take some time to talk about how practice management software for therapists, as well as therapy documentation, can have a positive impact on patient experience. Let me paint a picture. No patient wants to go to an outpatient practice that provides a negative patient experience. When patients contact practices, they want an easy process to:

  • Communicate their referrals
  • Get registered, with clear understanding of insurance coverages
  • Get scheduled at times that are convenient for them

Any bumps in the road with these, and patients are already frustrated. Now, imagine when patients show up for their first appointments. They check in. The front desk clerk asks a bunch of questions that they already answered on their initial contact. There seems to be a disconnect with insurance information and copay. Ugh! Then, they are greeted by their therapist, who takes them back to the therapy gym. Ok. Now let’s get started. Wait … the therapist asks a bunch of questions while his or her head is buried in the computer—typing in a document—or writing frantically on a piece of paper. The therapist complains that he or she has to ask all of those questions and document a bunch of stuff because that is how the therapy documentation system needs to work. So far, it’s been a less-than-optimal experience.

Discover how to configure your documentation workflow to your unique practice standards

Next, patients return for follow-up appointments and are told that the schedule was changed. No calls. No reminders. Somehow, they fell off the schedule. If they wait 30 minutes today, they can be seen by another therapist. Each session, there may be a different therapist asking each patient redundant questions about their conditions. I am not talking about normal status, improvements, or progression questions. I mean general questions of the “I don’t know much about you so what are we treating today?” variety. By the end of treatment, patients have three different ways to do exercises or therapy techniques. Also, they are getting bills, either because their insurance denied coverage (due to improper billing) or the clinic did not collect patient payments accurately. Whatever the case, this is not what patients sign up for. I think you can see the pattern. This could be a result of many different issues, but often, it is because there are inadequate tools and/or software solutions to support the process.

Impact of a Smart EHR

I mentioned above that “practice management software for therapists, as well as therapy documentation, can have a positive impact on patient experience.” That does not mean that electronic documentation systems should replace the brain and critical thinking of therapists. The front desk clerk has been trained to organize and keep the therapy practice humming. That means that knowledge of processes for proper insurance verification, scheduling, and patient interaction (to name few of the many tasks) is critical. Having a software solution that supports all of those processes is also critical. As therapists, we are trained to offer specialized skills combined with critical thinking and clinical problem solving. Having a documentation system that supports the balance of an efficient but clear patient story while driving compliance and accurate charge capture is just as critical. The key word above is support. The software should be intelligent enough to help support and synchronize the many steps mentioned. Let’s revisit the scenario above with the idea that there is an intelligent EHR helping to synchronize and support the process. This time, patients contact the therapy practice. Referral and insurance information is collected. Initial appointments are set. Patients receive automated welcome and reminder messages and actually show for their first appointments. Upon check in, the EHR provides important pieces of information about them. There is no asking of redundant questions as in the previous scenario. Patients feel known and that their cases are understood. The EHR also flags the front desk clerk if there are missing pieces of information that, if not collected, could impact reimbursement. So far, pretty smooth. Therapists greet their patients. Ok. Now let’s get started. Therapists  ask a bunch of questions, but the questions seem to be more tailored to each patient and his or her condition. Also, therapists making good eye contact and really listen. Whatever the therapists are doing on the tablet-looking thing seems to be easy and allows them to say what they want when they want (versus being forced to document a certain way). They explain to their patients that the information being collected will help track outcomes and patient progress to meet their patient-specific goals.

When patients return for follow-up appointments, they thank the front desk clerk for the call/text/email reminders. They also thank the clerk for calling to make scheduling changes, so appointments are more convenient for them. Each session, patients work with consistent therapists. The smart EHR provides up-to-date information about each patient’s condition, goals, plan of care, and outcome progression. The questions are laser focused on each patient’s specific care and improvement. The smart EHR prompts therapists for missing information, upcoming tasks that are due, and billing guidance to ensure proper charge capture. Patients leave therapy with a clear plan of care and consistent exercises and therapy techniques to meet their goals. At the end of therapy, patients have a clear picture of what insurance covers and what they are responsible for. Pretty good experience. Patients tells all their friends about their great experiences at outpatient therapy!!!  Ok … again, I think you can see the pattern.

The point I am trying to make is that the primary goal should always be about patient experience. Using software as a tool should not be a burden or hassle. It should be a means to offer intelligence, insight, transparency, and support to synchronize all the steps to manage compliance, outcomes, revenue, and efficiency. If you do that, that translates to ways to offer a top-notch patient experience. So, is a smart therapy documentation and practice management system important to make every patient’s experience better?  My vote is yes!

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