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Today, we live in a world of direct deposit, debit cards and online bill pay. But it wasn’t so long ago when the checkbook reigned supreme as our preferred tool for personal finance.

You remember checks, right? Date at the top-right, “Pay to the order of…” in the middle, the numeric amount in the box to your right … pretty standard stuff. Sign on the line at the bottom-right, tear along the perforated edge, and you’re all set.

Now imagine a checkbook where each check is slightly different, some with a different format and others seeking slightly different information. The confusion and unfamiliarity experienced by the check writer would no doubt be felt by bankers, as well. Processing the documents would certainly slow, as would the transaction of money throughout our economy.

“That,” you might say, “is why our financial system standardized checks and other important financial documents – to streamline the system and reduce confusion.” To which family physician and blogger Lucy Hornstein would respond, “Then why not do the same for our medical system?”

In a recent blog post featured here, Dr. Hornstein argues quite convincingly the virtues of designing and implementing standardized forms for all medical reporting. Dr. Hornstein turns to personal experience as she describes the frustration involved in simply trying to find patients names, dates of birth, service dates, etc., on the various forms that cross her desk each day.

“Banking has long used standardized forms for things like checks,” she wrote. “All I ask as that every medical report have a uniform heading, with spaces for the patient’s name, birthdate, and a date for the document which should default to the date of service.”

We at Vantage Clinical Solutions feel her pain. Like administrators at medical practices throughout the U.S., our medical billing staff spends countless hours tracking down information that’s hidden on or missing from patient charts and forms.

“A clean claim takes 7 to 14 business days to process,” explains Monica Morey, Vantage Medical Billing Supervisor. “If any information is missing from that original claim, or there are errors, you’re looking at 30 to 35 days of processing. That’s a lot of extra time to wait for payment from an insurance company.”

Jessica Dixon, one of our Current Account Specialists, added that standardizing a new patient form may help decrease those errors. “If the first page of new patient information packets contained only the fields needed to submit claims to insurance, it would lessen the chance that vital information is missed. Right now, clinics design their own forms and may mix self evaluation questionnaires with insurance policy information.”

Sarah Leigh, our graphic designer, adds that the move to online forms may help reduce the margin of error. “When you submit a form online with incomplete information in required fields, you get an error message, prompting you to go back and fill in the blanks. With paper forms and fax, you don’t get that error message, until someone is reviewing your fax and notices that there is something missing. Then you have to account for the time it takes to track down all of that necessary information that should have been required from the very beginning.”

The seconds, minutes and hours of wasted time add up quickly, so much so that experts across the country are pointing to such “administrative waste” as a key area of concern within the U.S. health care system.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the U.S. health care system racks up about $200 billion worth of administrative waste a year. If that’s too large of a number to wrap your mind around, consider this: in a physician’s office, the AMA suggests that administrative costs amount to about 10 to 14 percent of the practice’s gross income.

“The administrative morass of today’s system is not working well for anyone,” wrote Cecil B. Wilson, M.D., a recent AMA President, in a 2011 letter to all physicians. “It is complex, redundant, inefficient and costly for all of us – and it is an area where we all share a great deal of frustration.”

For Dr. Hornstein, this frustration translated to a call for standardization, a simple enough idea that most agree could be quite effective – some say to the tune of $7 billion in savings per year.

At Vantage, we’re dedicated to finding the best ways of collecting information and improving communication. If you want to chat with us about processes around your clinic, give us a call or contact us online.

What are some of the ways you’ve cut back on administrative waste? What are your frustrations with forms, faxes, and the relay of information? We’ll be continuing this conversation next week.