Time for an Upgrade

Though HME providers are experts on selling equipment and servicing patients, when it comes to buying computer software, many may feel they simply don’t speak the language. Fortunately, providers don’t need a degree in information technology to make a smart decision. Deciphering “tech speak” is usually unnecessary because today’s systems are built to be intuitive and user-friendly.

With so many options on the market, however, the decision isn’t always as easy as using the programs.

Today’s reimbursement landscape demands increased efficiency, seamless deliveries and freed cash flow. Software can help, but what do you need to know to find the right product to suit your business? To better assess the latest offerings, industry experts recommend that providers first self-assess. Understanding your needs gives you the necessary ammunition to properly evaluate software systems.

Follow these easy steps to finding your perfect fit.

Step 1: Recognize Software Extras

Before selecting a software package, providers must first know what software is and what it is not.

“HME companies… provide products and services to patients at home. Now that sounds obvious, but it’s not the way most software packages are written,” says Spencer Kay, president of Fastrack Healthcare Systems, Plainview, N.Y. “Most software packages are written as though an HME company bills people for a living.”

For the most part, billing comes standard on most software packages. The other system components are what really differentiate a software vendor.

“A good system from our standpoint can handle every aspect of the business, not just the billing part,” Kay says. “It can handle the clinical side and keeping track of documentation; it can keep track of the delivery side and automate that process; it automates the warehouse (and) customer service.”

Jay Williams (J. Williams), national sales manager of HME for QS/1 Data Systems, Spartanburg, N.C., recommends that providers determine what features they need, and look for a program that has 80 percent of those features, with two or three deal-breakers. “Typically, the deal-breakers, the good systems are all going to do,” he says. “Now, if you go out there and nobody has the deal-breakers, why is it a deal-breaker and nobody has it?”

Sometimes, he says, it’s best to let your software vendor know what you want your software to do because the software may meet the goal in a different way.

Step 2: Determine Your Business Needs

Industry insiders have been preaching the gospel of understanding the costs of doing business and improving efficiency since the inception of competitive bidding. It’s a strategy that also makes sense for software selection.

If a system cannot be judged on billing alone, providers must determine before meeting with a software vendor what portions of their business needs automation. Those areas for HME generally include inventory control, ordering, customer service, document imaging, delivery management and other areas of long-term growth, such as retail sales and online ordering.

Kay recommends that providers talk to their employees. “Speak to the drivers and see the problems they run into, or the guys in the warehouse or the people in the billing department. If you understand the challenges they face and where they’re wasting a lot of time, then you can look for a system that will make that all more efficient,” he says. “Under competitive bidding and what’s going on in the marketplace, providers are going to need to slash their costs dramatically and try to get more done without having to go out and hire more people. That’s what a good system ultimately should do for you is be able to increase productivity dramatically without having to hire people as your business grows.”

Brian Williams (B. Williams), marketing manager at Computer Applications Unlimited (CAU), Harrisburg, Pa., recommends that providers put their goals in writing. “What exactly is it that they’re trying to do? What processes are they trying to make more effective or more efficient in their business?” he asks. “Once they understand exactly what they need in that vein, then it’s going to be a whole lot easier to compare a few of the top vendors.”

Step 3: Evaluate Costs

No one can argue that purchasing a software program is a major expense, but if properly chosen, investing in a software program that meets your business needs could result in substantial cost savings.

Providers must consider not only their current needs, but also their future business needs when setting a budget.

“A lot of providers get overwhelmed by a lot of the functionality in some of the systems, and they tend to buy based on price and not necessarily based on looking at what’s best for the business long term and looking at what provides them the best growth strategy for their business,” Kay says. “The last thing you want to do is have to keep buying new software packages and trying to implement them.”

Doing so is expensive and disruptive, says Kay. He advises providers to purchase software with “long-term potential” even if they don’t need all of the functionality today and it bumps the budget up slightly.
J. Williams says the biggest mistake he sees providers making is purchasing solely based on price. While paying the lowest possible price is not good, he also says “that doesn’t mean you want to spend $100,000 either. Just because it’s the most expensive, doesn’t make it necessarily the best.”

Kay says providers must consider a budget for the entire IT department, including software and hardware, and should look at financing options.

In fact, according to J. Williams, talking over payment options with the vendor is paramount to budgeting. Some companies charge lump sums up front and then smaller fees for support, he says. Other systems require less money up front and large payments on a monthly basis.

Evaluating costs is where a shopping list comes in handy. Providers can easily refer to the list of must-have features, as well as wish-list features. Going back to the 80-percent rule, J. Williams says providers should not expect to find everything on their lists and get away from the notion that “I have 100 things on my shopping list, if it doesn’t do all 100, I’m not going to buy the system,” he says. “Because you’re never going to find a system that does all 100. The only way you get all 100 is if you pay for a custom program and it’ll cost you $100,000 or $200,000 or $300,000.”

Another thing to consider, especially on a limited budget, is whether or not you need a server-based system at all. Many software vendors offer Web-based software that significantly reduces the cost of setup. In fact, the entire cost of hardware is eliminated as the physical server is housed with the vendor. Access to all programs and data is available online.

J. Williams agrees that smaller businesses must carefully weigh the need and cost of a computer system. In fact, in some cases, a billing service may be more appropriate, but he cautions that a billing service is not a panacea.

“It’s not the best fit as your business begins to move on because their job is just to bill,” he says. “They’re not going to handle the paperwork for you. They’re not going to keep up with your inventory.”

Step 4: Narrow the Field

With dozens of software vendors rolling out programs for the medical field, it’s harder than ever to narrow down your options.

“At times, providers will want to do their homework so diligently that they look at every software vendor out there and then they get so confused,” B. Williams says. “They get to the point where they become fossilized by inaction because they can’t make a decision. There’s just information overload. If you don’t make any decision, then none of the vendors are going to be able to help you.”

To narrow it down, B. Williams says it helps to consider what type of software the vendor specializes in and if that specialty targets your business needs. For example, if the vendor concentrates on pharmacy billing and you already have a pharmacy system, perhaps that software isn’t the right one for you.

B. Williams also says to look at the history of the vendor. “Are they looking for a huge company that’s all diversified? Are they looking for a company with five or six employees that do everything? Or are they looking for a small business like themselves, with maybe a few trucks, a couple dozen employees, all under one roof that’s been around a long time? And is that going to be the right fit?”

Step 5: Get Personal

Providers also should meet with software vendors to evaluate the products and discuss individual business needs. When meeting with vendors, come prepared to discuss your business.

Kay says he asks a lot of questions before determining how his company can help a provider. “What we like to do when we first meet a potential client is say, ‘Tell us about your business. Tell us how you operate internally. Tell us who your clients are, the kinds of products that you’re selling and what your future plans are. Do you plan to open up a retail store, which a lot of HME providers have done?’” he says.

Be sure to outline your company’s problem areas and then your goals. Then ask how the software can help.

B. Williams says that providers need to feel comfortable with their vendor to move forward, especially since so much of business today is not conducted face to face. “It’s a matter of being able to trust a software vendor based on their track record, based on their experience, based on how I as a provider would perceive they do business and based on the functionality,” he says.

In his experience, J. Williams says providers typically ask a company how long they’ve been in business, how many customers they have, and how long the product has been on the market. “Who you buy the product from is as important as the product,” he says.

The next step is contacting company references. Kay says providers should ask the references how long they’ve used the software and how much of it they’re using.

“Ask them what kind of benefits they are seeing,” Kay says. “You’ve had it two years; have you been able to reduce staff? Have you seen your costs go down? Have you seen productivity increase? If the references can’t say yes to any of those questions, they’re not a good reference… They may tell you it’s a great company, but if they’re not getting those kinds of benefits from the software, either the software is not doing what you need it to do or the training wasn’t good.”

Step 6: Invest in Training

After making a decision, the entire process can fall apart if your staff isn’t properly trained. In fact, training can determine the success or failure of the software. To prevent failure, get training sorted out upfront. Ask the vendor about training options. Is it online, on CD or DVD, or is it in person? Does it cost extra?

“Training is critical,” says J. Williams. “I’ve always told people that … if you buy your hardware and your software all from the same company, and they come in to train you or they train you on the phone — however they do their training — and the first training period ends and they don’t talk to you about how to do a backup, just say, ‘I want my money back.’ “

Determine what type of training is best for your staff and then get your staff motivated to learn the program.

“Some people I think feel threatened when a new computer system is put in,” Kay says. “To overcome that, you need to create this team atmosphere that this is good for everyone.”

Kay says he’s seen clients do a “phenomenal job” at motivating their employees. Contests and T-shirt giveaways during training sessions are a way to involve staff.

B. Williams says personalized training is the most effective method, although online training is more cost-effective.

Ongoing training is vital, he says, especially with regard to employee turnover. “People don’t stay in the same jobs for 40 years like my father did. So, as new people come in, it’s much more effective to have an experienced trainer from the software vendor work with that person rather than a third-party overview by a person who’s expecting an exit interview in the next couple of days.”

Step 7: Request Support

Like with any big-ticket item, such as a car, maintenance is crucial to the software’s longevity, says J. Williams.

“I don’t care how good your program is, there are program bugs out there,” he says.

Providers must make sure they get updates, and he suggests that providers check with the vendor to see how often those updates are available — the more often the better.

In addition to updates, J. Williams says providers should ask about the response time in the support department. “How quickly does somebody get back to you? Is it immediate? Is it within an hour? Is it two hours? Is it the next day? Is it two days?”

And it doesn’t hurt to question how a vendor will respond and the qualifications of the support staff. “Can you call in? Do you have to e-mail them? Do you only get e-mail answers back? Are the people you call, do they know what they’re doing?” J. Williams asks. “You’ve got to have people that are trained, that their whole and sole and only job is supporting HME software.”


This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Elisha Bury is the editor of Respiratory Management.

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