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We are well into the 21st century, and everyone knows that going paperless has advantages. It is easier to sync shared information; it allows for remote work; it can even reduce the cost of operations. Most medical staff offices (MSOs) have made strides toward going paperless, but some processes often linger and still need to transition. 

Medical Services Professionals (MSPs) planning to reduce or eliminate those final paper processes will likely encounter challenges. However, any MSO can finish the transition with some planning and preparation. 

Start with the end in mind.

Learn from the successes and failures of others. Medical Services Professionals are part of a relatively tight-knit community. Sometimes we feel like the only ones that understand us are our own. Use that to your advantage. Connect with others who have been through the transition. What worked for them? What didn't? What advice do they have for specific challenges that seem particularly hard to transition? Use what you learn from these conversations to build a picture of what a paperless structure would look like to your organization. Be specific and outline your process to match your organization's goals. 

Creating standardized naming conventions and document placement is imperative to stay organized. In the beginning, this may seem like a waste of time, but as your paperless credentialing process grows and more people are involved in the process, standardization is critical. Over time, the number of documents in the electronic credentialing files can become unmanageable without any system of organizing them. Having things sorted by a system everyone knows saves time when looking for records and also makes it much easier for anyone on the team to train new staff members.

Decide the best place to begin.Now is the time to ask the tough questions. How much paper do you transition? How far back should any specific process go? Where are digital files stored? The most reasonable approach is to select a pivot date. Everything after that date should be converted. Everything before should be stored where it can be accessed if needed. This date will be different for every organization. The central factor in choosing the date is deciding how far back information needs to be easily accessible. What specific processes or expectations do you have to meet within your organization? The answer often comes from analyzing the business needs at hand.

In a recent real-world scenario, a credentialing software vendor recommended not scanning the paper backlog of credentialing files. After much discussion, the MSP team decided it was worth the effort to have digital copies going back several years, and the decision was well rewarded. They found that they constantly referred to the scanned documents in their workflow. But it was during credentialing software outages, that the scans became truly invaluable. In one such outage that lasted several days, the digital repository allowed them to remain efficient and keep working until the software was back on-line.

Another piece of advice we often tell clients is to start slow and work out the bugs. When starting to work in a paperless environment, start with one data element at a time. For example, start with something like professional licenses. Scan those documents into the credentialing software and work out the ‘bugs.’ It is easier to manage a pilot project to see if any unanticipated issues arise. Once you master and complete one data element, move on to the next. Doing so keeps things manageable in the beginning. The same goes for people as processes. Start with a core group of people working on the project and bring others in slowly when the initial group is comfortable and well versed.

Decide how to handle paper you don't control.

Vendors and customers will inevitably still send paper documents. These need to be scanned as well. The key is accountability. In other words, who is responsible? It could be that every team member scans the documents they receive, a specific group does all the scanning, or that only one person champions the scanning process. Every team is different. It comes down to what fits best for your organization.   

Consider utilizing a data management solution. In one example, when the team started the transition to paperless, a data management solution wasn’t readily available in the organization. To overcome this, the team devised its own data management process and saved documents on a shared drive that everyone in the department could access. One suggestion would be to seek out the advice of your IT department and investigate all options together. In many cases, they can help spot potential problems and guide you toward solutions that will work well versus ones that can become problematic. Be openminded. If there is a reasonable way to become automated, consider it. But do your due diligence to understand the impact each decision carries with it. Once you start down one path, it can be very time consuming and expensive to change the process later.

Calculate the return on investment for the transition.This part can be a bit tricky. This step includes two parts. The first is to determine the total cost involved to move each process from paper to digital. Costs might include time and expense to scan all documents, external resources needed, technology to manage information and store data, and training on how processes will work going forward. The second step is to calculate potential savings achieved following the transition. To do that, you will need to know the ongoing costs of operating in your new paperless environment. Colleagues in your finance department can usually help you determine the transitional costs, ongoing costs of a digital operation, and potential savings you might achieve.

Publish a realistic timeline of implementation.

Creating and publishing a timeline seems like common sense. However, this one step, if not handled thoughtfully, can set unrealistic expectations and create dissatisfaction for all involved. One way to more accurately estimate timelines is to start small. Conduct a pilot program for a single process you are looking to transition. Using the results from that small-scale pilot, establish an implementation timeline and milestones for the bigger endeavor. One rule of thumb is to keep expectations realistic. Whatever timelines you determine for the larger project, double it. Converting credentialing files almost always takes longer than expected. Give yourself breathing room by setting targets you can actually achieve. 

Adjust your department structure to match new processes if needed.

Going paperless means operating differently than you have in the past. Yes, the information and principles are much the same, but the route to getting the job done will undoubtedly change. Larger organizations may find that specialized teams with set responsibilities can keep processes running more efficiently. One group can focus on credentialing or privileging. Another can take responsibility for data integrity, maintenance, and reporting. Smaller teams may need to get creative. Do other resources exist within the organization that can help with one step or another? Going paperless will require that you modify your processes and establish new ways to work. Be creative and think differently. 

Develop checks and balances for accuracy.

Speaking of different, transitioning to digital credentialing processes opens up a wealth of new ways to use information. Information once hidden away on paper is now accessible. Look for new ways to share this data within your organization. Can you push accurate data to other departments, shortening the process, and eliminating the need to rekey data? Consider ways to share information with the call scheduling system, the hospital operators, the on-line ‘find a doctor’ system, the radiology department, the lab, the electronic medical record, human resources, marketing, or even the scheduling system.

Get buy-in from the team.

Taking on a paperless transition, whether partial or complete, cannot be done alone. It takes the support and buy-in of the entire MSO team, facility leadership, IT leadership, and Medical Staff leaders to accomplish. Talk to your teams early. Get their thoughts. Allow them to establish ownership of the transition. Work together to decide how much can be done internally and what parts might require outsourcing. An already taxed MSO might not have the capacity to take on a transition project even though everyone agrees it would improve operations in the future. Transitioning to paperless can make a world of difference, but not if the daily work that must still be completed suffers because the most experienced team members are unable to keep up. A transition project could be a valuable learning experience for younger team members or even interns. Take feedback, get buy-in, and develop a plan that everyone can benefit from in the end. 

Always keep one eye on the future of the Medical Staff Office.

Going paperless can open up a world of possibilities. Data that used to hide in dark cabinets full of paper files can be accessed, sorted, and edited much more quickly and easily. The work MSPs do to gather that information, sort it, and either get new physicians up and running or keep existing ones going has not changed. What paperless processes provide are new ways to use that information and easily share it between departments. When data is visible and reviewed by multiple people, the bar is raised on accuracy and efficiency. 

As you look ahead, think in terms of having access to all the information you need at any time. Records are accessible 24/7 from anywhere. Audit trails can be more robust. Organizing accreditation surveys and audits become easier. The transition may even allow you to reclaim space once occupied by bulky cabinets and use it to create a more open and inviting work environment for your team or to house revenue-generating functions.

Getting to a fully paperless environment takes some work. It does not magically happen. But those who have successfully achieved this goal can help guide you through your journey. The end result, when done right, is definitely worth it as you achieve greater efficiency and lower costs. 

The Hardenbergh Group has the expertise to help advise, guide, and/or execute the plan to transition to a fully paperless operation. Contact us today to find out how we can help at info@hardenberghgroup.com.