Posted: 01 Sep. 2020 8 min. read

It might finally be time to unplug the fax machine in health care

By Wendy Gerhardt, senior manager, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, Deloitte Services LP

As the mom of a first grader with a chronic condition and developmental needs, there is nothing that I loathe more about the health care system (and the education system) than the enduring reliance on fax machines.

We have countless appointments with specialists and endless meetings with special educators and therapists. They all are incredibly caring and thoughtful, and my son would never have progressed to where he is today without them. However, they all expect me to transmit critical information via fax. While fax machines were considered secure, state-of-the-art technology 35 years ago, it is now 2020 and we have much faster, far safer, and more consumer-friendly ways to transmit information.

Although the health care industry is continually adopting new and exciting clinical technologies, it still relies heavily on outdated office technology. This was pointed out during our recent interviews with chief executives of health services innovators. Health services innovators are a new breed of company that offer creative solutions and services to industry incumbents (e.g., health systems and health plans) as well as to consumers. Many of these organizations want to collaborate with incumbents to transform the health care sector.

Technology is in the DNA of health services innovators. They tend to be nimble, consumer-focused companies that want to use their deep industry expertise to help incumbents solve some of health care’s most vexing problems. Most importantly, these companies, along with other external disrupters, are likely to play a critical role in moving the health care industry toward a consumer-centric, technology-enabled future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges of using outdated technology to transmit information. The executives we interviewed agreed that a lack of data and technology—for the centralized and accurate collection of patient data—has created challenges. For example, many health systems and public health agencies still rely on faxes (which frequently are sent to the wrong location or are lost) to track new COVID-19 cases, test results, and deaths. The ability to make appropriate decisions is significantly hindered if health care professionals are unable to share information quickly and accurately.1 Chief executives of health services innovator companies, however, view the pandemic as an accelerator for change in health care.

Health services innovators told us that that they see opportunity in collaborating with— rather than competing against—incumbents to disrupt the industry. Incumbents bring industry expertise, capital, and regulatory expertise to the table. Innovators can offer tech-enabled, data-native, analytics-driven, and consumer-centric approaches. Together, these groups can push the industry toward the future of health.

Fax machines in the era of virtual health, interoperability, and digital technology

Increased used of digital technology in health care could help make the sector less reliant on paper records and fax machines. In an April blog, my colleagues Bill Fera and Urvi Shah suggested the COVID-19 pandemic might have accelerated virtual health by a decade. 

Given the rapid adoption of virtual health over the past six months, other interactions are becoming more digital. For example, pre-visit paperwork, patient histories, and even vitals and symptom trackers can now reside within a virtual data set. For example, patients (or their parents) might be asked to fill out forms through an app or online before checking in for e-visits. Along with being much more efficient than paper, digital check-ins are also much safer—no clip boards or pens to wipe down after each use. Maintaining this momentum could create a more seamless and consumer-friendly experience for patients and their family members.

Information no longer has to be on paper. Data can be automatically pulled from electronic medical records and populated into forms through the use of robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI). Interoperability capabilities can make it possible for different organizations to share information electronically. A patient’s EHR from one health system can be digitally transmitted and used to populate forms for a specialist within a different organization. Physicians are highly interested in tools that can automate mundane tasks, according to our recent survey of physicians. Why can’t mundane tasks also be automated for consumers?

Change will likely require pressure from inside and outside the industry

During interactions with my son’s specialists and therapists, and with his school’s teachers and administrators, I always jokingly ask them to please wait one minute while I hop into my time machine back to the 1990s—where I keep my fax machine. My joke always falls flat with them. Technology holds the promise to improve so many aspects of the health care experience. Before change can take place, however, technology will need to be embraced by front line staff, administrators, executives, and consumers. With many health services innovators entering the industry and adding pressure, we might finally be on our way. My dream is that these new trends and entrants might finally unplug fax machines for good.

Endnotes

1. Bottleneck for U.S. coronavirus response: the fax machine, New York Times, July 13, 2020

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