A Taste of Technology — Sweet Medicine for Providers?

While no one claims that technology is the panacea for all that ails the respiratory industry several providers are already using new technology to their benefit and manufacturers are bringing new software to market on a regular basis. Although HME software for billing and patient database systems has been around for several years there is still plenty more new technology to look forward to: “The technology hasn’t fully evolved yet,” says Joe Lewarski, Inogen. “We’re seeing offshoots with combinations of software and hardware in the fields of telemedicine, patient follow-up and inventory control.” Lewarski himself was able to eliminate a full time position by using call-back software that more effectively performed patient follow-up calls. “We were calling more patients more consistently and doing a better job of tracking. We could program calling schemes to better serve patients after-hours, which is important when you are dealing with working people who aren’t home when you’re open.”

Document Imaging
Patrick Hanna, president and owner, B&K Home Medical Services, Inc., discovered that document imaging – also known as scanning to the uninitiated – was an effective tool for his company to become more efficient. “We scanned everything that was in our filing cabinets and every day every new paper is scanned into our system. Now, people can log in and look up a patient record or whatever they need from any computer. Maybe they need to answer a question or in customer service they might reference different types of information. Previously, they had to get up, leave the showroom, go back, pull out the paperwork, take it back to the desk, and make sure it was re-filed.” Hanna says that it took about a year to scan everything but that was on and off and they utilized the person responsible for filing as the scanner. Now they have been able to eliminate the entire position (don’t worry – the file person quickly found work in a sister company).

Jim Spellman at Oxygen One has used the power of telemetry for three years. He explained that it is a tool that can be used to monitor the liquid level content in the reservoirs in the patient’s homes. It is a Web-based system where the telemetry box, or monitoring device, is hooked onto the reservoir itself and is powered by electricity; it’s tied into your telephone line. The monitor sends a liquid level signal reading every night to the computer at the office.

A major advantage of this software is that the provider can really get specific on how much liquid a customer is using. Then, deliveries can be scheduled in relation to the level or simply when it makes the most economic sense if the driver is in that service area.

“It wasn’t difficult to get going,” says Spellman. “The manufacturer sent a person out and then we set up a number of computers ourselves.” Another benefit is that the system can be moved from client to client. “Once we found out people’s level of usage we then set others up on it.”

Patients also welcomed the technology, he adds. They gained extra peace of mind knowing that the provider was watching them and keeping a close eye on their liquid content levels.  Some customers are simply not capable of keeping good track so this was a way to “take the guesswork out of it.” The benefit to the company, says Spellman is that they can track the frequency of deliveries, the level of usage and get a good sense of what to expect.

Trackabout — Asset Management Software
New asset management technology has come onto the market to help businesses with operational costs. One company, Trackabout Inc., is new to the HME industry but the software has been around for many years in the wider medical gas industry. Jim Glessner, chairman, worked in that industry for over 20 years and now applies his knowledge to the HME oxygen cylinder business.

Trackabout is an asset tracking service that is run over the Internet. A central data center is accessed via the Web. No equipment has to be installed at the provider’s office for it to work. Instead, all that is needed is a hand-held computer that scans barcode labels that are attached to assets, namely oxygen gas cylinders.

The system aims to help providers in two ways: First, for general cost reductions. “There are lots of different philosophies about how to manage selling medical oxygen,” says Glassner. “Some people think you need a lot of containers to reduce trips to the patient’s location, so you deliver a lot of cylinders at same time, perhaps supply them for a whole week. You end up with multiple cylinders including the back-up cylinders. The bottom line is you have to track them, know where they are, and be able to retrieve the proper number of these assets given to the customer.” The software allows total control over the assets, including tracking how long cylinders are at the customer, the turnover and how many a particular customer needs. “You can look at all kinds of metrics to help you analyze how efficient you are.”

Secondly, on the regulatory compliance side, the provider has to keep track of all the batch process records. This software collects all of the data associated with putting the gas into the container as well as all the analytical info. Once the cylinder has been filled, “a lot number is used to track it as far as what batch it was, where it was filled and when,” explains Glessner. Another benefit is if a contamination issue arises and the provider needs to recall specific lots. The software helps automate the recall process.

The system also cuts down on duplication of efforts when a third party supplies the gas for the cylinders. The filler can input all the data about the filling on behalf of the provider into a hand-held unit. “That info follows that gas container as it moves from the gas supply company to the HME to the patient. All of the data stays in the tracking database and can be used by whoever needs to see it. That’s the one big area of value – what we do for automation as regard to compliance.”

Glessner says that a “mom and pop” sized business is looking at about a $10K investment but the company guarantees they will see a return on investment within one year. “No one to date has complained that it isn’t affordable,” he adds.

Medsage — Patient Management Software
“Automation isn’t for solving any kind of complex problem, it’s for doing routine tasks, and asking routine questions,” says Jerry Connelly, president and CEO, Medsage Technologies.

The company launched their first patient management software in 2003 for respiratory medications. Currently, their bread-and-butter application is geared to providers in the sleep disorders market but the company is now alpha testing software specifically for the oxygen industry, and is due to launch it late in quarter one of 2007.

“Medsage software allows the home care provider to contact all of their patients at the optimal time, with their personal survey questions which are recorded by the provider, the RT or any other employee.” By using a familiar voice to record the questions, the patient can still feel a personal connection to the provider.  “What we have proven is that people like contact. They like to have an avenue to report how they are doing. And the fact that it’s not an automated computer voice means it’s very personalized,” explains Bob Crouch, chairman, Medsage Technologies.

The survey is a series of “yes or no” questions that are customized by the provider themselves. Medsage acts as a consultant in creating the questions. Incorporated into the survey are educational statements that support the patient’s use of the therapy. The software takes the data generated by the phone survey, integrates it into the central database, analyzes it and can then be used to create reports and graphs. The provider logs into a Web site to access all the information.

The provider can look at many different aspects of their operation with the reports. For example, if there seems to be an above average number of call-backs from specific patients, by looking at the RT assigned to those patients, a provider may identify a training issue.

Setting up the system is straightforward. Someone from Medsage visits the provider to develop a deployment plan. The survey is defined and recorded and then the system will be operational four to eight weeks later. On the first night a limited number of calls are made and the next morning each call is gone through with help from Medsage.

This article originally appeared in the Respiratory Management Nov/Dec 2006 issue of HME Business.

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