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Colorado practice cuts costs by hiring IT staffer

Manager Arlene Zimmerman had an IT cost awakening when the computer went down. She called in the vendor’s tech support and paid $100 to find out the computer was simply unplugged.

“I told myself ‘never again!'” says Zimmerman, who manages four-physician Colorado Springs Family Practice in Colorado Springs, CO. So she started on a path of building up as much IT support as possible in-house – and getting the training free.

She began at the beginning. Each time support came in, she made the same request: “Show me what I can do so I don’t have to bother you with trivial things.” And when support came in to fix a specific problem, she asked for a walk-through of the solution and took notes so the office would not have to call again if the problem reappeared.

Along with that, the vendor representatives gave her a checklist to follow when issues arise. It was basic information, she says, but it listed things the office wouldn’t otherwise have known to look for, such as where to check for loose connections.

She also took advantage of user group meetings that the vendor provided. Those too are free, she says, and often they cover the same information found in expensive classes conducted by the corporate software owners. She found further IT training from classes sponsored by local chapters of professional organizations and medical societies.

Time for a replacement

But everything has its limit, and the more Zimmerman learned and the more advanced the system became, the more the IT work cut into her time as manager. Her solution was to contract with an outside IT person. But again, there was minimal expense. Recognizing that many good IT people are self-taught, she simply “asked around to find somebody interested in entry-level work.” The person she contracted with was someone who wanted a career change and is taking college courses in health IT. Originally, he worked only on an as-needed basis, she says. But as he learned more and was able to help the office save more money and also as the system got older and required more of his attention, he became full-time.

She points out, however, that for an IT person, “full-time doesn’t mean 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.” Some things have to be done when nobody is on the system, and because the doctors want to be able to access the system in the evenings, there is often middle-of-the-night work. Yet the cost is considerably less than bringing in outside tech support. What the office pays for his services is in line with the salary of an experienced medical assistant or biller. And she points out that it could be even less. An office that already has a staffer who has computer abilities could train that person to do the work in much the same way as Zimmerman trained herself.

Money with a good ROI

Money spent on in-house IT support is an investment, she says, because it allows the office to take advantage of the full capabilities of its practice management system. Any system can produce reports and generate information far beyond what’s required for financial management, and with an in-house person, the office knows what types of reports it can use.

The same is true for the IT training. With any class – expensive or not – that covers “the big stuff” such as meeting the EHR meaningful use requirements, the office can see a tremendous return. And to get full value, more than one person needs to attend. For something as far reaching as meaningful use, for example, attendance needs to include the manager, the IT person, a representative from the clinical staff and, if possible, a physician. That ensures the information gets to everybody who uses it.

Equally valuable, she says, is any class that gives the office “information in time savings for the physicians and better use of the system.” Whatever the cost, “the office gets a return on investment in a few months,” because the physicians become more productive.

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