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In January 2009, President Obama laid out a bold plan to improve healthcare and medical safety in the United States. Among the plans? Full Electronic Health Records (EHR) by 2014.

Now that healthcare reform has been signed into law, those plans for EHR are well on their way to becoming a reality. And while 2014 may seem like plenty of time to make the conversion, in reality it's a pretty ambitious target date. Many healthcare organizations are already scrambling to get their systems in order to meet it.

It's likely that most of the focus for healthcare organizations over the next four years will be placed in three areas: getting a comprehensive EHR application in place within the organization, making sure it can freely exchange data as part of the national system, and converting the tons upon tons of existing paper records into electronic files.

All of those are important steps to meeting the 2014 goal. But there's one other critical area that could be easily overlooked by these healthcare organizations if they're not aware of it: faxes.

Every day, healthcare providers exchange thousands of pages of patient, insurance and other data by fax. There are several reasons for this preference for faxing over other delivery methods such as email.

The big one is the requirements of the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). According to HIPAA, email is not secure enough to transmit confidential patient information. It can be intercepted and read too easily, thus violating a patient's right to confidentiality. Faxing is the only form of electronic transmission acceptable under the law.

Even if they could use email, though, many physicians would still choose not to. They don't like to have their email in-boxes filled with a lot of information they'd prefer be handled by their staffs, and they fear being inundated with SPAM or unimportant information on a daily basis. As a result, they guard their email addresses as if they are the key to the universe, giving them out only to a select few.

Of course, another reason for the preference for faxes is many healthcare providers still use paper charts, which is the reason President Obama is pushing for the move to EHR in the first place. If a paper record needs to be forwarded from one provider to another, or to the same provider working out of multiple locations (two offices, a clinic, a hospital, etc.), the easiest way to get it there is to fax it.

Then there's the simple fact that EHR systems are still uncommon at this point. Even if you have one, until we get closer to 2014 and the heat is on, there may not be many places where you can exchange that information. So until then, the information will have to get from one provider to another by other means - and that means by fax.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to a fax machine is that although it transmits the documents electronically, the readable output is still on paper. Which means if you want to store it electronically, either as part of an EHR or in anticipation of one, someone will need to scan it and save it. Not too tough if you only receive a handful of faxes per day or week. But if you're getting dozens, or hundreds of pages, turning paper into electronic documents can quickly become a time and resource sink. And come 2014, when you have to do it, it will get even worse.

There is a solution that both keeps the legal and practical advantages of faxing while eliminating the need for additional scanning - an Internet fax service. With these services, documents are transmitted using fax protocols (thus meeting HIPAA requirements), but are sent and received as attachments in email accounts. The default format is PDF, but better services give you a choice of document formats so you can integrate them more easily into your EHR.

With an Internet fax service, electronic documents can be easily forwarded, attached to electronic medical records, and stored. There's no paper to misplace, no ink to fade or smear, and no chance that a document relating to patient A will end up in patient B's file because two faxes got mixed together, reducing patient frustration.

On the sending side, an Internet fax service can be tied into the provider's contact management system, eliminating the need to dial a phone number on a keypad and stand at the machine while the fax goes through. This method not only saves time, it also prevents a patient's confidential medical information from being accidentally faxed to Petersen Auto Body - which avoids another potential HIPAA violation.

Here's the best news. Unlike many improvements in the medical world, which tend to cost more to implement, an Internet fax service can help seriously reduce costs over using fax machines. Elimination of the paper used to print faxes alone can save thousands of dollars. Add in the elimination of the machines, the dedicated fax lines, toner and electricity and you're potentially saving thousands more while also being more environmentally responsible.

Healthcare reform is a top priority of the Obama administration and as a result the government will be watching closely to make sure healthcare providers are getting on board with EHR.

Don't let faxing slip through the cracks. Make sure you're ready for 2014 by moving to an Internet fax service this year.

About the Author

Steve Adams is the vice president of marketing for Protus, a provider of communications tools for small-to-medium-businesses and enterprise organizations, including the MyFax (www.myfax.com) internet fax service; my1voice, a virtual phone service; and Campaigner, an e-mail marketing service. He can be reached at sadams@protus.com.

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