By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
At first glance, Debi Willis’ patented software product for the health care industry doesn’t seem so high-tech. It captures patient information typically gathered by filling in bubbles on paper questionnaires.
But southwest Oklahoma City-based PatientLink not only is saving thousands of health care providers nationwide countless hours in uploading data to patients’ electronic medical records (EMRs), but also carries the potential to profoundly improve and advance patient care, said Willis, founder and chief executive.
Her product, which costs $7,000 per system, uses a scanner and sophisticated software to simultaneously read and pull data from both sides of customizable patient questionnaires to automatically populate the corresponding EMR fields — from family backgrounds, past surgeries, drug allergies and diseases to current symptoms, medications, and more.
PatientLink interfaces with the industry’s most widely used EMR applications, including Allscripts, Greenway and GE Centricity. The company, which employs 16 and has annual sales of $2.5 million, serves clients across the U.S., including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; Catholic Health Initiatives and Integris Health.
A former senior systems engineer for the Federal Reserve Bank, Willis founded PatientLink in 1999 so doctors wouldn’t have to type in information or hire nurses to do it.
“Entering the information was very slow and very frustrating,” she said. “Early on, one physician walked away from a half-million-dollar investment in computers and a server, saying ‘I didn’t go to med school to be a transcriptionist.’” Others since have closed their practices because of the growing burden, she said.
With health care reform, and greater federal reporting requirements, the paper-to-digital challenge is even more onerous, Willis said.
But with PatientLink, it takes less than 10 seconds to import data, completely and accurately, into an EMR, she said, while patients can swiftly answer the questions independently in doctors’ waiting rooms.
Some PatientLink customers choose to gather information via iPads or offer surveys online, but paper forms — which don’t break or become outmoded and require no secured logins or assistance — prove the most effective, she said. Along with darkened bubbles, product scanners can read Xs or check marks made with various pencils and pens — except for grease pencils or red ink, she said.
Carolyn Baldwin of Virginia Surgical Associates said PatientLink has cut her practice’s patient registration time by at least 10 to 15 minutes per patient.
Meanwhile, Tanya Livingston, medical director of ambulatory information technology strategy for Integris Physician Services said, “Our staff was so overworked with data entry that it‘s changed our lives.”
“Using PatientLink with Allscripts Enterprise, our providers now process a great deal more information about a patient with just a few clicks of the mouse,” Livingston said. “It has allowed the nurses to visit with the patients, get to know them personally, and look them in the eye — instead of turning their back to them to face a computer,” she said.
Willis said one physician client told her that an answer on a PatientLink questionnaire helped him diagnose a condition he didn’t pick up in the patient’s exam. Similarly, one form’s questions about symptoms helped a cardiologist properly treat an elderly female patient, she said.
The woman had reported no symptoms during her office visit, but checked swelling and pain on the questionnaire she mailed later.
“After he received and read the form, the doctor called her and asked ‘Why did you tell me you were fine when you weren’t fine?’” Willis said. “She told him, ‘I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.’”
Willis, who’s a kidney cancer survivor and has family members who died from brain cancer, believes PatientLink can be used to collect the necessary data to end cancer.
“If we get millions of people’s answers to questions on family history, symptoms, diagnosis, and success or failure of treatments, we could get answers really fast,” Willis said. “Right now, there’s no real collection.”