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How to Choose Medical Practice Management Software

How to Choose Medical Practice Management Software
Credit: Creativa Images/Shutterstock

Your medical practice management system could either improve your practice's efficiency or create a nightmare for your staff. Whether it's a boon or a bust depends on which solution you select.

In this guide, we'll examine what practice management systems do and help walk you through the decision making process. What features should you consider? What questions should you ask when shopping around? Choosing the right practice management system can help you streamline day to day operations and increase your cash flow, but the wrong system can grind your practice to a near-stop. If you're looking for this type of software in 2018, make sure you choose a vendor partner that will be there for you every step of the way.

First, you should know why you need a practice management system. Here are a few benefits of having one:        

  • Streamlining: It is key to coordinating some of the most vital financial and logistical aspects of your practice, including scheduling, billing and financial analysis.
  • Automation: A practice management system that includes a patient portal can also take some of the burden off of your front desk, allowing patients to request appointments and fill out forms online. Selecting the system that best matches your specialty and workflow will play a big role in your clinical and financial success.
  • Billing: If you decide to keep your medical billing in-house instead of outsourcing it to a medical billing service, your practice management system will help ensure claims are submitted to payers in a timely and proper manner. Along with a diligent staff, practice management systems can help increase the amount of claims that are accepted by payers on the first pass. Staff members can also use the software to respond to denials and rejections, as well as generate financial reports and pull data to analyze your practice's fiscal health. It's important to note that you'll also need a certified medical coder on staff if you intend to bill through your practice management system, especially with the recent change to ICD-10.
  • Patient Communication: A practice management system can also be used as a tool to generate and send patients balance statements, as well as predetermine whether patients will owe anything out-of-pocket before their appointment, making it easier to collect payments at the point of care.

Already know all about practice management systems? See our recommendations for the best practice management systems for small practices and new practices.

Editor's Note: Looking for more information on medical practice management software? Fill out the questionnaire below and our vendor partners will contact you to help you make your decision.

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While physicians will rarely need to interact with their practice management system directly, the software is an indispensable daily partner for staff members. Between engaging with patients and supporting your revenue cycle, the practice management system you choose has a large role to play in the success or failure of your practice. With this in mind, Business News Daily spoke to experts and consultants to find out the right questions to ask when considering which practice management system to buy.

Cost: The cost of any practice management system is highly variable depending on your needs, the features you select, and the size of your practice. Most companies will only be able to give you a ballpark estimate without sitting down and going through the specifics of what you are asking for. And when it comes to practice management systems, there can be a lot of hidden costs and optional features that could quickly increase the base price.

Bottom line: Go into the conversation knowing what it is that you need and what you don't. Your top priority through this process should be to obtain a written list of which features you will be getting for exactly what cost before you agree to partner with any vendor. Without clear, written confirmation, it can be tough to know what's included and what costs extra, and you might end up paying an additional fee for a feature you could have lived without.

Ease of Use: Implementing a new system and adapting to it is difficult enough as it is, so it's important to make sure ahead of time that the people who will be using the new software are comfortable navigating through it. Everyone works differently, so make sure to consult with your staff and include them in the decision-making process. They should at least be moderately comfortable with the system and, ideally, the vendor will offer you a company representative to help guide them through the learning curve.

Bottom line: Each practice management system is organized in a different way, so it's imperative to know what your staff is looking for. For example, some practice management systems use a central dashboard to organize the software's different features, while others employ a lot of drop-down menus and multiple pop-up windows. Knowing what is most effective for your practice's workflow is key to a successful transition. Any new system will naturally slow productivity a bit at first, but it shouldn't grind your practice to a screeching halt.

Cloud-based or Local Hosting: There are two primary ways to host practice management software: on the company's servers accessed through the cloud, or on local servers purchased and maintained by your practice. If you prefer to host the system locally, you'll need to pay upfront for the servers, which can be expensive, and then you'll need IT staff dedicated to maintaining and updating the system. If your servers go down, you can be left without access to your data. Even worse, if the security of the system is compromised, sensitive patient data might be lost. With the cloud-based option, those concerns are the vendor's. System updates are the company's responsibility, and you can be reasonably sure that your data is secure. The upfront cost is also less; instead of buying servers, the cloud option is often a monthly subscription fee. But if you choose to go with the cloud-hosted option, it's important to ensure the company has effective security measures in place.

Bottom line: You'll want to get written confirmation that your practice owns the data stored in the cloud; you'll also need an assurance that if you switch systems the vendor won't hold your data hostage. It's not uncommon for a company to try to charge practices to take their own data when leaving for a new system. In that case, you may have to choose between paying up, or losing all your hard-earned data, meaning you'll have to start from scratch with a new system.

Experience with Specialties: You'll also want to ensure that the practice management system you choose is widely used within your specialty. There are nuances to different specialties that simply cannot be reflected by a general system, so you'll need to know whether the vendor took your specialty into consideration when designing the system. Otherwise, you might end up with a barebones system that is not optimized for the functions you require. For example, a general practitioner's needs vary greatly from that of a dermatologist's, and for optimal performance you'll want to be sure your practice management system can be tailored to your needs.

Bottom line: In order to find out just how well each company performs in that regard, it might be worth reaching out to other physicians you know operating in your field and ask them how they like their practice management system.

Interfacing: Another huge consideration when choosing a practice management system should be how well it will interface with the electronic health records (EHR) system your practice uses. Interfacing refers to the capability of both systems to communicate with one another and share relevant data. Operating two systems that interface well can reduce the amount of time it takes you and your staff to enter and transfer data. If you're scheduling patients and recording demographic information, that data should automatically be entered into the EHR system when the patient comes in for a visit. Likewise, after a patient has been taken care of, the EHR system should automatically send the practice management system the relevant billing information based on the services you provided.

Bottom line: Even a great practice management system can become a nightmare for your practice if it doesn't work well alongside your EHR. If the two systems can't communicate properly, your staff might find itself entering and re-entering the same data over and over, taking them away from more pressing tasks.

Customization: The system that your practice uses should be responsive to your needs. Whether it's customizing the look and feel of the templates you'll be entering data on or the length of appointments in the scheduling feature, the ease and breadth of customization is something you'll need to understand before you sign on the dotted line.

Bottom line: Knowing what you need is essential before engaging a vendor; if you're not sure what a system can do, ask to be shown just how much you can alter it. Also, find out if customizing certain features means an additional cost to your practice. Just because it can be done, doesn't mean it will be done for free.

Patient Portal: A patient portal is a great component of a practice management system that can relieve a lot of stress from your staff and expedite patient visits. The portal allows your patients to login from their own computers and fill out the paperwork that they would otherwise need to complete upon arriving for their appointment. With demographics, insurance information, and scheduling requests filled out remotely, your practice can take the next steps that are needed ahead of time. In the best-case scenario, by the time a patient walks through the door, their insurance has been verified, any required co-payments have been determined, and all of their personal information is up to date. However, it's important to take a look at the patient portal before chalking it up as a plus. A confusing or clunky patient portal can frustrate your patients and actually make it more difficult to obtain the required information.

Bottom line: While the portal is an excellent tool, make sure any vendor shows you this feature in detail, and remember to consider the component from the perspective of a patient who might be unfamiliar with the needs of a medical practice's staff.

Reporting and Data Analysis: In addition to performing billing tasks well, you'll want a practice management system that can create robust reports and analyze data so you know exactly where your practice stands financially. Simply managing your revenue cycle is not enough to remain viable; detailed reports and analyses can go a long way to helping you project and even improve your cash flow. For example, you'll be able to identify which physicians are the most productive for your practice, or you can tell what neighborhoods the majority of your patients come from.

Bottom line: By identifying through these reports what works and what doesn't, you can keep your practice on a sure-footed path toward success and profitability. And if a practice management system allows you to electronically share those reports with other members of your practice, that's even better.

Training: Even if the system is incredibly easy to use, there will always be a learning curve. Also, consider the varying degrees of technical aptitude among your staff members. No matter how intuitive, when your staff is adapting to a new piece of software, they're going to need some guidance now and again. A truly committed vendor will offer comprehensive training, either on-site or one-on-one over the Web.

Bottom line: It's important to receive in writing the training process the company engages in and any additional costs for staff training during the implementation period. Good training means your staff can become accustomed to and comfortable with the practice management system quickly, and it will reduce the amount that your productivity will suffer as your practice makes the transition from your previous system. 

Vendor Support: A vendor-partner should be expected to be there for you when something goes wrong. It's inevitable, as it is with all complex systems, that you will eventually encounter a problem, and the vendor should be available to help you recover from any issues you might have. Further, if an issue arises on their end, you need to know that they'll be responsive and accountable for the error. In some cases, a company might assign your practice a direct liaison. That is a useful resource for any practice, as this individual would be familiar with your particular system and the way your practice works. Other companies, however, simply have a tech support call center; it might be more difficult to solve a problem if the person who takes the call is unfamiliar with your practice management system's setup. Moreover, it's important to know whether support services operate 24/7 or if you can only contact tech assistance during normal business hours.

Bottom line: A good relationship with a practice management vendor is founded on trust, and that is needed from the very start. What type of support you can expect and any additional costs for that support are a few more terms you should obtain in writing at the outset.

Experts and professionals consulted for these tips include: David Zetter, who is the founder and lead consultant of Zetter Healthcare, as well as a member of the National Society of Certified Healthcare Business Consultants; Adina Friedman, medical systems analyst at CTS Guides; and Joseph E. Glaser, nuclear medicine physician based at Radiologic Associates PC.

If possible, purchase a complete software suite.

If your practice is just starting out, it might be worth your while to purchase everything you need at once. Ideally, you can obtain both a practice management system and an EHR system from the same vendor, which is also the manufacturer. This way, you can be sure the systems are able to communicate in an optimal manner, and future updates will be done with each system in mind. This way, you'll also have a one-stop contact for technical issues, support, and training for both systems.

"The bottom line is to make it as painless and simple as possible," Glaser said. "Considering how bulky these systems can be and that you rely upon these things so heavily means they have to work really well. If you're starting from the ground up, get everything at once and make sure you've got everything you need."

Demo at least three systems.

It's not enough to simply demo one system and decide that it looks good enough. You need to gain a frame of reference for your comparisons, and that's why Zetter recommends meeting with at least three to five vendors and asking them critical questions about the products they offer.

"A lot of people will just see one system … and say, 'Oh, I like this one,'" Zetter said. "Instead, demo three to five different systems so you can really understand what the best are."

Bigger isn't always better.

Many times, larger companies are focused on enterprise practices and hospitals. Their systems, in these cases, will be tailored to those kind of enormous operations, and might not be suitable for a small practice. Some big companies offer small and mid-size options as well, but there are plenty of reliable vendors who focus exclusively on smaller practices. When it comes to practice management, bigger doesn't always mean better.

"I would be very wary of the large companies for the small practitioner," Friedman said. "For those mid-sized to larger practices, it's a different matter."

Install your PM system first.

By installing the practice management system first you can get your cash flow to a steady level and your staff comfortable with the system before beginning the daunting process of EHR implementation. Having the practice management engine running smoothly can make the inevitably bumpy ride of transitioning to a new EHR system a little bit easier to manage.

"I recommend implementing the practice management system first and having it in place for about six months," Zetter said. "Everybody gets used to the scheduling and you build up your cash flow, and that way when you implement the EHR you don't impact the entire office."

Call local references within your specialty.

The experts we spoke to were unanimous in this ruling: seek out your own, local references who operate within your specialty. Don't simply settle for the list of references a company gives you; these are probably only their happiest clients and might not be relevant to your interests anyway.

"You're not going to have a perfect system, so when you call for references these are good questions to ask," Zetter said. "There are always problems with installation, but the key is how the vendor handled it and how quickly. Ask whether or not they would make that same decision again and go with the same vendor."

"You really just have to know what you want," Glaser said. "Sometimes it's as simple as asking other people you know. Go to the other people in your field and discuss it."

"It's very important for a small medical practice to get very local testimonials," Friedman said. "The rules within each state for insurance operate differently. It's very important to talk [with other providers] about insurance submission."

For more information on practice management systems, see our recommendations for software for small practices and software for new practices.

Editor's Note: Looking for more information on medical practice management software? Fill out the questionnaire below and our vendor partners will contact you to help you make your decision.

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Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.