Fairbrook's Last Chance

Philip Betbeze, for HealthLeaders News , July 16, 2007

Coming in November, I'll be writing a short HealthLeaders magazine piece about a big Washington state IPA's adoption of an EMR/physician practice management system for its members. As it's the middle of summer and 95 degrees outside, I'm reminded yet again how far ahead we plan in the magazine business. But as this newsletter and about a dozen others we offer at HealthLeaders Media shows, we're not exclusively in the magazine business anymore.

And that's a good thing, because parts of this story needed telling before November. The IPA, Northwest Physician Network, was testing this EMR/practice management system even though it was skeptical about the promised returns given that members had seen past EMR/billing system efficiency promises turn out to be overblown.

Beyond the numbers, the ROI, and the billing improvements this system has offered to the IPA is what it's done for the Northwest Physician Network's membership-keep them afloat. Many members couldn't be much smaller--like the Clinic at Panorama City in Lacey, WA, a two-physician, one nurse practitioner physician office that was on the verge of going out of business before it started beta-testing the new EMR/practice management system a year ago yesterday.

I won't blow the whole story, but let's just say that without adopting this particular EMR/practice management system, David Fairbrook, MD, and his two associates would now be working for a hospital as salaried physicians-and they'd be a lot less happy working for the man instead of themselves. Northwest encouraged Fairbrook to start his practice slowly with just the e-prescribing module, but Fairbrook was in no mood to wait and "begged" to jump in feet-first, with the EMR and billing/collections module included in the beta-test. When I asked if he had any apprehensions about trying the latest EMR system and possibly screwing up his practice, he somewhat surprisingly offered me an emphatic "no."

"I didn't have any apprehensions because it was either get something done or go out of business," he said, heaping criticism on his previous outsourced billing and collection service. "We were losing money," he says. "When they went out of business, they almost took me with them."

Well, since then, the Clinic at Panorama City has reduced its overhead by 10 percent and dropped a coder from the payroll at $50,000 a year--and now Fairbrook and his colleagues get paid in an average of 10 days instead of 30.

At HealthLeaders, we hear all kinds of wild claims from EMR/practice management vendors. They all want us to write a story on how wonderful their "game-changing" software is and how it will do just about everything for the physician practice but go out for coffee. But talk is cheap. Fairly regularly, when we ask those vendors if we can talk to their clients, that's the last we hear of them.

In this case, much of the hype turned out to be legit. Fairbrook calls his experience automating his office a straight-up win, and so would most--except for possibly the hospital that was trying to hire him. Now he can remain independent and solvent, at least until the next cuts come down the Medicare/Medicaid pipeline, he says.

The November story on this experience will be what we call internally a "shortie," meaning we have about 400 words to tell the tale. But for Dr. Fairbrook and many small practices around the country, getting an EMR/practice management system in place was a huge development indeed, and deserved a little more than 400 words and a 3 1/2 -month wait.

Philip Betbeze is finance editor with HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at pbetbeze@healthleadersmedia.com.




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