Gene Austin, CEO of Columbia Orthopaedic Group, on automated workflow tools and the pandemic

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Gene Austin is the CEO of Columbia (Mo.) Orthopaedic Group. He spoke with Becker's Spine Review about the company's use of workflow automation and how it's helped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: How has Columbia Orthopaedics utilized automation?

Gene Austin: We've been looking for ways to streamline how we enhance effectiveness and efficiency at the same time. And so our experience with MedEvolve's workflow product has been very positive in that regard. The quick thumbnail sketch is, we had five people working in our insurance follow-up team, and we were looking at expanding that to six. We implemented workflow last year and some folks were onboarded within 30 days. Others took 60 to 90 days to get them fully on board. But bottom line, it increased our efficiency. Not only did we not go to six workers, but we repurposed one person. So now we're down to four with better work metrics than what we had before. So ours has been a real success story simply because it helped provide a work organization platform instead of team members coming in to try to set their own priorities; management was able to handle that.

Q: How has the practice used automation during the pandemic?

GA: We were one of the lucky practices; we didn't lay anybody off. We didn't have to furlough anyone. While our caseload dropped significantly, we were able to keep full employment practice, and as a result, folks were still using the same tools and it was just a little lighter workflow. During the first shutdown, our office practice was probably off by about 50 percent, and surgical practice was off about 90 percent. So we still had claims being processed, we still had cases claims being followed up on, but certainly not to the same volume as prior. And May 4 came when we opened back up, and it has been a steady ramp up since then.

Q: Are you worried about the possibility of a second shutdown? How are things in the state?

GA: Right now Columbia is a hotspot, and the hospital is on a day-by-day decision as to whether or not they're going to allow elective cases. The irony is communitywide, our COVID-19 patient population is significantly higher than it was during the initial shutdown. You know, our local [intensive care units] are over 80 percent capacity right now; the daily news is more of a COVID-19 briefing. So, yes, we are concerned at this point. There's been no prohibition on elective cases, although that's a determination that's made on a day-by-day basis. Cautious optimism would be the order of the day.

Q: What tactics will you employ to push through the next few months?

GA: At this point, we think we have the tools to move forward, and there are some additional resources that MedEvolve is coming out with from an analytic standpoint that we're very anxious to see to help broaden our use of some of the tools that we've seen with workflow. We've been able to expand it so that not only works with insurance claims, but also patient follow-up claims. And now we're looking forward to increased capacities just to analyze our data.

Q: What advice would you give other orthopedic groups who are facing increased financial challenges due to the pandemic?

GA: I think the primary challenge is to never lose sight of what we're here for, and that is to provide excellent patient care. It is easy in times of any extraordinary circumstance to lose sight of that. But I think if we keep focused on our prime directive, what are we really here for, then we can work out the processes. If we always focus on caring for that patient, the rest of the things will fall in place.

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