Medical Practices Simply Can’t Afford To Skimp On IT Infrastructure

1964, Dynamic control problem being studied in the Analogue Computer Laboratory

Analogue Computer Laboratory – 1964. Source.

The Earth orbits the Sun, and medical practices can’t afford to skimp on IT infrastructure… some facts are simply immutable.

Normally I would proclaim that any business can’t afford to skimp on its IT infrastructure, but given the current climate where just having a Windows XP machine connected to your network is a HIPAA violation, I’ve clearly got a certain target audience in mind for this post. That said, it’s not just medical practices that could benefit from taking a few minutes to read this post.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past months advising (and implementing) practices on how to make the move from the no longer supported Windows XP to Windows 7 and newer operating systems, and one thing has become readily apparent to me – there are two kinds of medical practices:

  • Practices that see technology as part of the patient experience.
  • Practices that only think about IT when it breaks.

The medical practices (and other businesses) that realize that their IT infrastructure is part of the patient (customer) experience tend to have made the realization that IT in a medical office is not just there to scan ID cards, print receipts or create patient forms, but actually adds substantially to the patient experience and bottom line of the practice.

Happy patients = more money!

That’s not a difficult concept right? I think everyone can agree that if a patient has a positive experience at your office they’re more likely to come back the next time something ails them. They’re also far more likely to recommend you to other potential patients (word of mouth marketing), leave positive reviews on rating sites, etc… Happy patients = more money for you. Simple!

A lot of medical practitioners and office managers appear to forget that the patient’s experience in their clinic is not just measured by the patient – doctor interaction, it comes from the everything they experience at your office. From the moment they walk in the door, from that first impression, the friendliness of the staff, the promptness of their appointment, the ease of filling out information – it’s all being judged by the patient and it ALL impacts your bottom line.

So, how does IT actually affect any of this? Well, let’s forget about silly little things such as multi-thousand dollar fines (per patient) when data is exposed due to poor infrastructure and / or running out of date operating systems and look at the ways that keeping your computers and software up-to-date actually affects your bottom line.

Faster computers (and modern operating systems) increase staff productivity.

It’s not just just the ability to run better, newer software, but multiply the 10 minutes it takes those ancient computers to start up by the number of staff you have and there’s a massive amount of wasted productivity hours. A lot of time is wasted every day because applications take forever to open / switch between, and all of that wasted time is time that you are paying staff for. If  you want to get more productivity from  your staff then give them the tools to do it.

Faster computers equal happier staff.

In my experience, there’s little that will annoy good staff in a good office faster than slow computers. It’s frustrating to have to not be able to move on to the next thing, especially when you have a patient standing there waiting for that document you sent to the printer 5 minutes ago.

If there’s one thing patients are especially good at picking up on, it’s the atmosphere in an office. When staff aren’t happy, you can be sure that patients aren’t, and that is going to have negative impact on their experience and willingness to return in the future or recommend  you to other potential patients.

Faster computers equal happier patients.

When you’re sick, tired or in pain, the last thing you want to do is stand around twiddling your thumbs for five minutes at the check in desk at your doctors office waiting for their EMR (electronic medical record) system to pull up your details. That should have happened almost instantaneously, and it would have if the aging computer had more RAM, a faster CPU or better connectivity to the server.

Get those patients checked in and out faster for a better patient experience and a less crowded waiting room.

Keeping your infrastructure up-to-date saves you money.

All computers break down, have issues and occasionally need repairs, but performing support tasks on older computers takes longer. Slower machines take longer to install drivers on, track down issues etc. It’s not rocket science.

As your infrastructure ages there tends to be more issues which require support and the cost of that support can escalate rather quickly. You might only see it as a $100 here, $200 there, but when this is happening every other week (even when you have contracted support agreements) it can quickly get to the point where you could have actually paid to replace aging equipment and had LESS support call-outs.

Upgrading / Staying up-to-date doesn’t have to be a huge expense.

A lot of small practices get sticker shock at the notion of spending many thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars to replace equipment that still essentially works. Most don’t realize that these upgrades don’t all have to be done at once. Unfortunately a lot of vendors won’t tell you that, instead going for the big “all in one” sell – but that’s another blog post.

Implement a rolling upgrade policy. Start with the oldest computer (or computers depending on how desperate the situation) on your network and get them upgraded – whether than means adding more RAM, SSD’s or a better CPU or simply replacing the whole machine. If you have a server, see if that needs upgrading too. In 6 months time upgrade another machine or two and continue to do so over the next two years. By the end of the two years you’ll have completed 5 upgrades (0 months, 6 months, 12, 18, 24) and have replaced or upgraded 10 machines without any one major expense.

Most small medical practices will have somewhere in the region of 10 – 20 machines, but you can adjust the plan to suit your infrastructure needs and budget accordingly.

On month 30, start the cycle again – upgrading the components of or replacing the machines first updated at month 0. Repeat the cycle over and over again and you’ll never have machines more than 2 – 3 years old running on your network.

You may also wish to annually evaluate your networking equipment and see if any performance gains can be made by upgrading aging switches / firewalls / routers to newer faster standards.

Remember that it’s not just your hardware.

Aging software can be a productivity drain almost as much as aging hardware. Be sure to evaluate new versions of the tools and software you use in your practice and determine if making the move to newer versions could increase productivity or will add features that improve security etc..

Speaking of security… Don’t forget those updates…

Again I’m going to gloss over the potential fines that medical practices and businesses can be slapped with if patient / customer information is compromised, and instead remind you of the cost of having someone come out to clean your network of trojans, spyware and malware. Good anti-virus and anti-spyware software is always a must, but none of it is perfect. No matter your operating system – Windows, OS X, Linux… make sure that you are installing updates regularly. These updates don’t just add new features to your system- they fix bugs, can increase stability and performance, and fix security holes and issues.

If your IT person (you do have an IT person, right?) recommends that you turn off Windows updates for performance, or because things “might break” then you need to fire them. The days of such things happening are long, long in the past, and the rare times that they do occur are far lest costly than the potential damage than can be caused by not running them.

While you’re at it, have your IT person or vendor upgrade the firmware on you routers / managed switches / firewalls etc….

It doesn’t cost a lot to be secure AND productive…

For most practices, if you put your IT infrastructure on a rolling upgrade cycle the cost becomes pretty negligible plus you get to avoid the major sticker shock of a one time upgrade.

If you start thinking about your IT as part of the patient (and staff) experience the outlay will more than recoup itself in increased productivity, repeat patients and positive word of mouth marketing.

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