Running an independent medical practice isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to shrinking reimbursements, increasingly complex regulations, and a near constant commitment to actually running the entire operation, a number of physicians are selling their practices to hospitals.
There’s an irony to this trend, because lack of patient demand isn’t the issue — there’s a huge shortage of primary care providers. It’s the challenge of practicing medicine while running a successful business that turns so many away from independent practice.
This problem is particularly bad for solo and small practices, because there are less physicians share the business responsibilities. To succeed you need to grow. Like any business problem, growth can be accomplished with the application of effective strategies. And as luck would have it for physicians seeking a better work-life balance, several of these particular strategies detail methods for being more efficient, which should result in more free time.
#1 Embrace Collaboration
Although it may seem contradictory to independent physicians clinging to their autonomy, collaboration is the main way practices of all sizes survive. Collaboration can take several forms, but joining an Independent Physician Association (IPA) makes the most sense from a business perspective.
In most cases, joining an IPA means becoming a service provider for an organization that’s separate from your practice. This can increase your local or regional referral network, but more importantly it joins you to an organization with greater negotiating power.
Now instead of simply taking or leaving what insurance providers dole out, you’ll be able to enjoy better negotiated reimbursement rates.
IPAs can also offer independent practitioners technology advantages that would otherwise be out of reach. For example, these organizations gather and analyze a tremendous amount of data on population health that can be wielded to minimize the costs associated with treating high-risk patients with chronic conditions.
Becoming a member isn’t free, but it’s one of the most feasible means to access better reimbursement schedules and superior technology.
#2 Improve Your Marketing
As troublesome as it may seem to the physician community, marketing is becoming an essential part of running any business, and that includes a medical practice. Even on a local level, having a strong online presence will significantly impact the reach of your business.
Constructing and maintaining a clean, functional website remains a standard, because new patients will nearly always vet your practice online before setting up an appointment. Beyond an actual website, your marketing efforts should focus on social media and local search engine optimization (SEO) marketing.
Without a doubt, showing up in local search results for Google and Bing is the most important marketing channel for growing your business. And it’s not as difficult as you may think. A lot of local SEO hinges on getting listed in the correct online directories and making sure your company’s information is consistent across entries.
Social media is important too, but not solely for patient engagement purposes. Consumers now use social media sites as miniature search engines, which makes your profile pages miniature websites. This not only affects the way consumers view your business, but it also contributes to how Google and Bing rank you in local search.
# 3 Trim Your Workflow
When you run your own practice, you have an exceptionally broad range of responsibilities, and an unorganized workflow can be disastrous for your business and personal life.
Optimizing your workflow and the way your practice runs should be a priority. Paperwork and other administrative tasks are the most infamous productivity culprits. Using technology to reengineer the way your practice runs should be your first move.
Patient portals are popular because of their relevance to Meaningful Use, but if they allow patients to schedule appointments online their usefulness can be measured in productivity as well as federal reimbursement.
Similarly, e-prescribing and computerized physician order entry are common components of an electronic medical records system that can quickly relay information without having to rely on faxes or multiple telephone calls. Even something like patient communication can be optimized with the right technology, so your staff can automate important yet tedious work such as appointment reminders and follow-up emails.
#4 Analyze Your Billing Practices
Trends in lower reimbursement aren’t something physicians should forlornly accept; they’re baselines to which you must react. It’s estimated that providers aren’t reimbursed for 12 percent of the services they perform, so using practice management and billing software is essential. Sync these systems with your EHR in order to receive as much reimbursement as possible.
Practice management systems can also run comparison reports that show which payors offer the best reimbursement for which procedures. Although it’s difficult to abstain from performing certain procedures altogether, it is important to understand if certain procedures are financially untenable at scale.
An effective business must also consider the conditions of the customer — a principle from which your practice is not exempt. The Affordable Care Act may have introduced millions of new patients into the healthcare system, but an estimated 60 to 80 percent will sign up for high deductible plans. Expect direct pay to play a much larger role in the coming years.
(Image created by Kyle Turco/TechnologyAdvice)
To adjust, consider requiring credit card information for patients to schedule appointments online, and implement merchant software to handle copayment as soon as a patient leaves the exam room.
Running an independent practice isn’t getting any easier, but it’s by no means unviable. By adhering to better business practices and using the right technology, physicians can still successfully practice medicine without being employed by a hospital or health system.
Zach Watson is the content manager at TechnologyAdvice. He covers healthcare IT, business intelligence, and other emerging technology. See more of Zach’s research, talent and professional advice here.