Whether they prove to be the real deal or turn out to be another generation of vaporware, electronic medical records and wireless practice management systems generated considerable buzz at the Medical Group Management Association conference last month.
The huge exhibition hall in Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center was crammed with service and product vendors, many of whom were brandishing handheld or notebook-sized wireless devices for coding EMRs, writing prescriptions and recording dictation.
Multiple vendors exhibiting at the conference claimed their gadgets are capable of ushering in that long-promised era of the paperless medical practice.
Randy Huffman, administrator of a 25-physician family practice center at Toledo (Ohio) Hospital, was skeptical. Huffman says he was astonished by what he calls an "onslaught" of sales representatives touting handheld EMR devices.
"Last year, I don't recall seeing palm anything," Huffman says. This year, "everybody has their own mousetrap."
Lynne Stille, chief operating officer of Paoli, Pa.-based Great Valley Health, a 140-physician network, had the opposite reaction. She says one of her goals was to check out EMR systems and that she found the vendor fair valuable.
"I'm stuck in a corporate office and don't see a lot of things new," she says. "I'll walk away with some ideas and applications for our IDX (computerized business management) system."
Yeung Lee, M.D., says he is the last doctor in his five-physician Frederick (Md.) OB/ GYN Professional Group to attend an MGMA conference, so, "to be honest, my managers dragged me here."
Lee says he spent most of one day with practice management and EMR vendors "taking notes and seeing who we are going to bring in for further information."
Consultant John Bogacz of West Springfield, Mass., says this was his 25th MGMA conference and among the vendors "there are a lot of companies down there that were not in existence two years ago. That's scary."
But, Bogacz says, it finally appears that "some guys down there got it right."
Bogacz says he's going to invite one seller--he wouldn't name it--to give him a second, in-depth presentation. "If I'm right, I am going to recommend them to my clients."
Other attendees say they picked up ideas on how to make their practices function better.
"I went to a conference on billing performance standards I found useful," says Clifford Hale, M.D., of Mid-Michigan Physicians, a 31-doctor group practice in Lansing. Another session on Web sites gave him more ideas. Hale says his group has a Web site that provides information, "but it looks like we need a site that can do things, like scheduling."
Troy Simon is the chief operating officer of the multispecialty Bryan (Ohio) Medical Group. He came to develop contacts with other practice leaders.
"There have been numerous times we've been involved in situations where we picked up the phone and I've said, `I know you've had this problem, how did you deal with it?"' Simon says. "There's no reason to reinvent the wheel."
The theme of the conference focused on embracing excellence in the business, clinical and service aspects of healthcare.
General session speaker Thomas Royer, M.D., president and CEO of Dallas-based health system CHRISTUS Health, says healthcare providers must come together, plan together and work together as regional teams.
Providers are being forced out of the old ways of autonomous practice by government and private payers, which are demanding efficiencies and squeezing out costs, and by patients who insist on better care.
Meanwhile, providers "certainly have been discomforted by the external report cards," Royer says, in reference to the widely publicized Institute of Medicine study last year on medical errors and the HCFA/ Journal of the American Medical Association report last month on variability from clinical guidelines in the care of Medicare patients.
"We've heard the voices saying community outcomes are not consistent," Royer says. "We will have to compete on quality. We need to move to a patient-centered focus instead of 'what's in it for me."'