Using VoIP to improve clinical, billing, registration processes

Voice over Internet Protocol systems are increasingly proving their worth to health care organizations. Here are 10 ways they improve clinical processes, plus several other tips.

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As Voice over Internet Protocol costs drop, the health care industry is increasingly using VoIP to streamline hospital unified communications (UC) systems and to improve the integration of various clinical, patient registration and billing systems. This article shares 18 examples of how hospitals can benefit from using VoIP.

As health care organizations update their computing capabilities in order to support electronic health record (EHR) systems, interoperability and standardization, many are considering whether to replace their existing phone system. As with any product purchase, IT executives are looking for real ROI in order to justify the cost.

In recent years VoIP providers have been making their products more flexible, to the point where many may be integrated with business applications. With the line between "phone" and "desktop" fading, enterprises are in some cases eliminating the need for handsets and moving toward application-based phones, also known as softphones.

While the total cost of ownership was high for many VoIP early adopters, those figures are dropping -- and there are several immediate, prolific benefits to gain though from VoIP implementation. Vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc., Avaya Inc. and ShoreTel Inc. now offer telephony systems that enable strong integration with hospital systems, including EHRs, patient registration, appointment scheduling, collections and patient calling.

Health organizations always focus on identifying platforms and solutions that will ensure enhanced patient care and streamline clinical workflows while still help reduce operational costs. Using a VoIP system help achieve these goals.

However, one key factor cannot be overlooked -- some of the auto attendant functionalities reduce the personal interactions among staff and patients. Convincing these users that talking to a machine is actually an improvement will be difficult, but it is an important step in effectively using VoIP in health care.

Ten tips for using VoIP in a clinical setting

To better identify the potential benefits of tightly integrated VoIP implementation within a health care organization, let's look at 10 examples of how individual hospital departments could be using VoIP systems.

  1. Dial patients using a single click. Letting a caregiver contact a patient without knowing his or her phone number eliminates unnecessary steps -- and protects against professional liability. Using VoIP, the call is made and an entry is generated within the chart to identify action has been taken. This call may also be logged as part of the e-visit or telehealth encounter.
  2. Using speech recognition technology, messages from a patient can be loaded into a chart in text or audio format. (Products here include Tellme from Microsoft and Dragon Medical from Nuance Communications Inc.) Patient requests can then be routed to a queue where clinical staff can view content or listen to messages without dialing into the voicemail system. Physicians trapped in meetings can also read messages without putting the smartphone to their ears. This provides a more efficient way to distribute information to individuals or groups.
  3. Record a customized voice message for a specific patient when lab results are ready and routing the information to a message board where the patient can retrieve it securely. This can ensure compliance with state and federal mandates regarding patient call backs to labs.
  4. Automatically retrieve the chart for the patient on the phone. While there remains a verification stage in this process, clinical staff need not look up or spell a patient's name. This improves customer service, since patients spend less time waiting on the phone.
  5. Send voice-to-text reminders to patients, as well as instructions for certain procedures. These reminders can also be tracked through a patient's health records, which reduces an organization's compliance risks.
  6. Provide instant messaging functionality. While many EHR systems do this, using VoIP enables texting or voice-to-text in cases when a caregiver is not in front of a PC. That way, these communications, such as tasks assigned by a physician who's out of the office, can still be associated with the patient.
  7. Reduce the number of mobile devices -- pagers, personal phones, hospital phones and emergency phones -- that health professionals carry around. This will ensure that a single reliable device can be used to communicate. This is done by using a smartphone data plan combined with specific pre-installed applications -- for receiving voicemails, sending messages or even dictating progress notes, to name three -- which interact with the organization's VoIP system. Many vendors have developed these technologies for the iPhone.
  8. Using VoIP that's tightly integrated with an EHR or hospital information system (HIS) can leverage a smartphone's photo directory to show clinicians the patient’s photo when they call. This can be a valuable tool for getting to know the patients, especially in the primary care area.
  9. As we continue to push toward coordination of care, the ability to efficiently collaborate and discuss an individual patient's health is paramount. An integrated VoIP system that can start a "patient roundtable" discussion -- using an EHR system to connect all linked physicians -- would bring tremendous value and efficiency while reducing the costs associated with conferencing and telecommunication.
  10. Patients not interested in using email for communication can use an interactive voice board. This could provide patient education resources based on specific conditions and procedures associated with a diagnosis in a secure fashion.

Reda Chouffani is vice president of development with Biz Technology Solutions Inc., which provides software design, development and deployment services for the health care industry. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com.

This was first published in January 2012

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