Health IT Preserves Idaho Hospital’s Independence

Posted on February 1, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Most of the time, when I write about hospital IT adoption, I end up explaining why a well-capitalized organization is going into the red to implement its EMR. But I recently found a story in RevCycle Intelligence in which a struggling hospital actually seems to have benefitted financially from investing in IT infrastructure. According to the story, a 14-bed critical access hospital in Idaho recently managed to stave off a forced merger or even closure by rolling out an updated EMR and current revenue cycle management technology.

Only a few years ago, Arco, Idaho-based Lost Rivers Medical Center was facing serious financial hurdles, and its technology was very outdated. In particular, it was using an EMR from 1993, which was proving so inflexible that the claims stayed in accounts receivable for an average of 108 days. “We didn’t have wifi,” CEO Brad Huerta told the site. “We didn’t have fiber. We literally had copper wires for our phone system…we had an EMR in a technical sense, but nobody was using it. It was a proverbial paperweight.”

Not only was the cost of paying for upgrades daunting, the hospital’s location was as well. Arco is a “frontier” location, making it hard to recruit IT staffers to implement and maintain infrastructure, staff and servers, the story notes. Though “fiercely independent,” as Huerta put it, it was getting hard for Lost Rivers to succeed without merging with a larger organization.

That being said, Huerta and his team decided to stick it out. They feared diluting their impact, or losing the ability to offer services like trauma care and tele-pharmacy, if they were to merge with a bigger organization.

Instead of conceding defeat, Huerta decided to focus on improving the hospital’s revenue cycle performance, which would call for installing an up-to-date EMR and more advanced medical billing tools. After the hospital finished putting in fiber in its area, Lost Rivers invested in athenahealth’s cloud-based EMR and medical billing tools.

Once the hospital put its new systems in place, it was able to turn things around on the revenue cycle front. Total cash flow climbed rapidly, and days in accounts receivable fell from 108 to 52 days.

According to Huerta, part of the reason the hospital was able to make such significant improvements was that the new systems improved workflow. In the past, he told RevCycle Intelligence, providers and staff often failed to code services correctly or bill patients appropriately, which led to financial losses.

Now, doctors chart on laptops, tablets or even phones while at the patients’ bedside. Not only did this improve coding accuracy, it cut down on the amount of time doctors spend in administrative work, giving them time to generate revenue by seeing additional patients.

What’s more, the new system has given Lost Rivers access to some of the advantages of merging with other facilities without having to actually do so. According to the story, the system now connects the critical access hospital with larger health systems, as the athenahealth system captures rule changes made by the other organization and effectively shares the improvements with Lost Rivers. This means the coding proposed by the system gradually gets more accurate, without forcing Lost Rivers to spend big bucks on coding training, Huertas said.

While the story doesn’t say so specifically, I’m sure that Lost Rivers is spending a lot on its spiffy new EMR and billing tech, which must have been painful at least at first. But it’s always good to see the gamble pay off.