Outsourcing certain staff functions in a practice to outside contractors working in remote locations has become commonplace in many medical practices.
Health care outsourcing services, also known as virtual assistants (VAs), were already booming in 2017, when volume grew by 36%. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 normalized off-site work, which was a boon to outsourcing providers.
The most popular services being outsourced today by medical practices include billing, scribes, telephone calls to patients, and processing prior authorizations.
“Outsourcing is not for everyone, but I’ve seen it work for many practices,” said Lara Hochman, MD, a practice management consultant in Austin, Tex. She said that practices have used outsourcing to solve problems like high staff turnover, tight budgets, and inefficient use of staff.
When in-house staffing is insufficient or not appropriately aligned with the task, outsourcing can produce big savings, said Teri Deabler, a practice management consultant with the Texas Medical Association.
For example, she said that a client was paying an in-house accountant $80,000 a year. When the accountant retired, she was replaced with a part-time bookkeeper earning $20,000 while her accounting work was outsourced at a cost of $20,000 a year. “The practice’s costs for this service were cut in half,” Ms. Deabler said.
What functions lend themselves to outsourcing?
Clinical services are rarely outsourced by individual practices – although hospitals now outsource numerous clinical services – but virtually any kind of administrative service can be contracted out. Outsourcing used to be limited mainly to billing and off-hours phone services, but today, more services are available, such as scribing, processing prior authorizations, accounting and bookkeeping, human resources (HR) and payroll, interactions with social media, recredentialing, medical transcription, and marketing.
Meanwhile, the original outsourced services have evolved. Billing and collections may now be handled by off-shore VAs, and phone services now deal with a wider variety of tasks, such as answering patients’ questions, scheduling appointments, and making referrals.
Ron Holder, chief operating officer of Medical Group Management Association in Englewood, Colo., said that some outsourcing services can also adjust the amount of work provided based on the customer’s needs. “For instance, an IT outsourcer may allow you to scale up IT support for a new big tech project, such as installing a new electronic health record,” he said.
The outsourced service provider, who might work in another state or another country, is connected to the practice by phone and electronically, and represents the practice when dealing with patients, insurers, or other vendors.
“No one, including patients and your physicians, should know that they are dealing with an outsourced company,” said Mr. Holder. “The work, look, and feel of the outsourced functions should be seamless. Employees at the outsourcer should always identify themselves as the practice, not the outsourcing service.”
Dr. Hochman said that many outsourcing companies dedicate a particular worker to a particular practice and train them to work there. One example of this approach is Provider’s Choice Scribe Services, based in San Antonio. On its website, the company notes that each scribe is paired with a doctor and learns his or her documentation preferences, EMR use, and charting requirements.