Why Doctors Need a Virtual Assistant

A virtual assistant performs remote administrative tasks. They can answer phones, enter data, handle scheduling or billing. For medical practices, a virtual secretary may not add as much value. Regulatory compliance, medical coding, and billing requires different skills. It can’t just be handed off.

With digital healthcare, a new industry is emerging – medical virtual assistants (MVAs.) An MVA redefines administrative support in medical terms. From coding to charting to EHRs, they take on the tasks that keep physicians from spending time with patients.

Patients feel better served and doctors spend less time typing. Who can argue with that?

Typical MVA Tasks

Most MVAs have 3-5 years’ experience working in a clinical setting. Some are LPN or even RNs. Here are some typical tasks a medical virtual assistant would take on:

Insurance verification: MVAs confirm the patient’s provider. They also document the deductible and co-pay. They know which specialists and labs are in-network. Physicians are equipped for a discussion about payment terms. Patients don’t get blindsided (and angered) by unexpected fees.

Scheduling and Follow-Up: This is a basic task often performed by in-office staff. An MVA can provide added support or take over the task. Remember people who staff the reception desk are familiar, friendly faces for patients. Balancing their comfort level with efficiencies is the best way to go.

Coding: Medical coding drives medical billing. Those little codes translate into payment for services. Doctors need to be aware that medical codes for telemedicine services are new. The billing process may change for some insurers. A good MVA can make sure your system is up to date.

Transcription: Remote medical transcription services have been around for a while. Advancements in technology including voice recognition have caused a decline in the need. MVAs do scribing which is helpful for physicians less comfortable with technology.

Billing: An MVA supports your billing operation but not without supervision. They can reduce the burden on your current staff or perhaps reduce the number of staff on payroll.

Patient Intake: MVAs can assist patients with completing forms ahead of their appointment. If you have forms online, they can staff a chat function. MVAs can transcribe responses for patients who can’t complete the forms online.

General Office: An MVA has different skills from a traditional secretarial assistant. Still, they are an extra set of hands. Use them to set up telehealth video meetings or conference calls, mailings, and data entry.

Hiring an MVA

why hire an MVA

Before hiring anyone, think about what you need. Having too little time to spend with patients is a common complaint among physicians. But what’s keeping you from having that time?

If you can’t identify that problem, you can’t fix it with an outside contractor. What are the overall goals for the hire? Are you supporting your staff or reducing your payroll?

The best way to understand the pain points in your workflow is to brainstorm with your team. Explain that you’re calling the meeting to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Reassure them the meeting isn’t about staff performance. Ask everyone to identify one problem they wish they could fix.

A process map can help capture disconnects that lead to breakdowns in operations. Use applications like LucidChart or map out the process on a whiteboard. If you do bring on an MVA, process maps are a good tool to restructure the workflow. They make great training tools too. For example, mapping billing processes by payment provider will help reduce errors that slow payment.

Once you’ve captured office input, you should be able to see where operations need some support. For example, the priorities might be:

  • Charting/EHR
  • Billing/Coding Support
  • Follow up on Denial of Service Claims
  • Scheduling Telemedicine Consults

This type of task list will take you to the next step.

Qualifications

There are some self-employed MVAs. If you want to use one, you need more than a resume. Do a background check and criminal history. Confirm the education credentials and get references from clients. If that sounds extreme – consider the resale value of contraband medical data.

An easier option is to hire a former employee as an independent contractor. Ask around at other practices for a referral. Retired medical professionals could be a perfect fit.

There are third-party services that provide MVAs. They operate like other staffing agencies, but with some added credentials. Their people are trained for HIPPA compliance. At HelloRache – started by a physician – there’s no contract, no minimum, just an hourly rate. They post profiles of candidates, you do an interview and make a choice.

It’s rare to find companies providing MVAs who work out of the US. Most are offshore to be more cost-efficient. The labor costs are significantly lower in countries like the Philippines. It’s common for licensed nurses will fill these roles.

How it Works

The advantage of an MVA is real-time service delivery. Physicians can eliminate redundancies in the process. Use a laptop or tablet to video conference with the MVA.

If the consult is in person, put the device in the exam room. Use a discrete location but make sure consult is visible. If the consult is virtual, conference the MVA into the call.

Let your patient know your assistant is documenting the treatment. The MVA transcribes the session as it happens. When the session is complete and the patient has left, look at the transcription to confirm accuracy. Sign off on the notes and have them saved in the EMH.

An MVA has an immediate impact on the time a physician spends in front of a screen. And just to make your decision more complex – they don’t have to be human.

Artificial Intelligence

You knew it was coming. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is actively applied in telehealth diagnosis and treatment. This technology can identify diseases before symptoms appear, so administrative tasks are a walk in the park.

In 2017, the Annals of Medicine reported physicians spend two hours on administrative tasks for every hour with patients. Most of that time is eaten up by updating the EHR. AI virtual assistants are voice-activated to facilitate and expedite documentation.

Nuance is a provider of AI health solutions. This video explains how physicians use the technology to their advantage.

This is not to imply we’re endorsing the Nuance platform. But we think the video articulates the benefit of applying technology in a new way. Despite all the hype around telehealth, the only thing about the paperwork that’s changed is its name. Digital documentation has the same redundancies, takes the same amount of time.

Producing accurate EMRs is a challenge. Typing isn’t easier than writing, so transcription is needed. Every time another person touches the data, the chance for error increases. Al’s voice-activated assistants transcribe the physician’s words in real-time. They also answer questions on patient history. They suggest medical codes for billing.

Top 10 Benefits of Virtual Assistants

This isn’t on the list, but it should be. Medical professionals and their team deserve a decent quality of life. Too many doctors (especially those trying to meet investor expectations) are working themselves half to death.

Bringing in a virtual assistant reduces the burden on everyone. Less stress, happier life.

  1. Pay for what you need when you need it. MVAs are not employees. Unless you contract for a specific term of service, you can use them at will. If you’re busy, put them to work. If not, send them home. (AI virtual assistance might be billed differently.)
  2. Reduce turnover: Finding qualified, trustworthy back-office staff isn’t easy. If you have a backlog in your back office – retain your staff by bringing in an MVA.
  3. Protect your cash flow: Medical codes for telemedicine consults are different. Some billing practices are different too. Every wrong code is a delayed payment. Bring on an MVA to get everything updated in the system.
  4. Spend more time with patients: The benefits are two-fold. Not only can physicians engage fully patient care, they spend less time in the EHR. It’s a win-win
  5. Hire for your specialty: Virtual assistants in healthcare have a medical background. Look for a history of clinical care in your specialty.
  6. Spend less: Whatever you pay for an MVA, human or virtual, will be less than a full-time employee. There’s no benefit package, no onboarding, no lengthy recruiting period. Practices are seasonal – you don’t have any expenses during downtime.
  7. Improve communication: There are so many small details in medicine. But they don’t feel small to patients. An MVA can pick them up. Patients feel heard. Calls and questions about everything from meal planning to pain management get answered.
  8. Inbox management: Physicians fight the battle of the inbox like everyone else. An MVA sorts prioritize urgent communications and even respond to suppliers and salespeople. (Let them handle your personal appointment calendar too.)
  9. Do it right the first time: Records in the EHR system are essential files. Errors can have life-changing consequences. With an MVA, the doctor doesn’t enter the data – they review it. Quality control reduces rework and liability.
  10. 24/7 Communication: Gone are the days of answering service. An MVA can be available after hours to field emails and phone calls. They know when to alert you in the event of an emergency. They handle the details, like summoning an ambulance or contacting a specialist.

Avoid Pitfalls

What do you need to watch out for? A virtual assistant you’ve never met – much less one that’s an app – can be nerve wracking. Particularly when you’re letting them into your EHR and accounting systems.

Be smart, ask questions.

Liability

Most physicians use a third party service to hire an MVA. First, check references and reviews on that firm. The first step is to confirm their hiring process – criminal history, background checks, drug testing. Are those documents available for review?

If an MVA makes mistakes that affect a patient’s care or well-being, who’s held legally responsible? That tells you how much supervision you need to provide. Make sure you get the answer documented. Have your attorney look over the contract for how and where a lawsuit would take place if needed.

Data Security

When you work with a virtual assistant, you have to share data. No matter how you do that, there are vulnerabilities. The cloud is a series of connected data centers in various countries. Those countries have different laws on data privacy and security.

Don’t be shy – question how that exchange takes place. What protections do the have in place and where is the data center(s) located?

Communication

Most MVAs are not located in the U.S. Language can be an issue, depending on accent and dialect. Anyone who has called into an offshore call center knows how frustrating it can be. Now imagine a patient struggling to understand what’s being said. Whether it’s an emergency communication or not – there’s a concern of what could happen if it was.

Technology

AI virtual assistants can’t be interviewed or questioned. The best you can do is speak with an account manager or technical support. If you can’t live with that, it’s not a good fit.

Should Physicians Get a Virtual Assistant?

Yes, we think so. Once you know what you need, the pros far outweigh the cons. Ask around, see what your peers are doing. Find a vendor, choose someone and get going.  The stress relief is immediate.

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