By Deborah Hirsch, TMCnet Contributor
The world used to dream of a paperless universe. Today we use more paper than ever. But a new technology may make this dream a reality for healthcare providers, allowing for better patient care and reduced practice costs.
Called digital pen technology, it’s something that lets doctors write prescriptions and make diagnoses the same way they always have – with pen and paper, but using a special pen that goes one step further – uploading what they write immediately into an electronic database instead of onto paper.
“We call it ‘smart’ paper,” says Virginia Carpenter, vice president of marketing for the Swedish Anoto Group, the company which pioneered this alternative way to capture data. “The only thing that’s changed is the pen.”
The reason it’s becoming so important is the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), which went into effect on February 17, 2010. HITECH promotes the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology. The act promises maximum incentive payments for Medicaid to those who adopt and use certified electronic health records (EHRs). Doctors who do not adopt an EHR by 2015 will be penalized 1 percent of Medicare payments, increasing to 3 percent over 3 years.
The advantage of digital pen technology is that it allows clinicians to continue to work the way they always have – with pen and paper, and lets the technology do the work. As many as 80 percent of healthcare facilities still use the old way.
But this technology makes the transition to EHR for these facilities much easier and more seamless, says Carpenter. “And the costs associated with training and workflow interruption are dramatically reduced when using a data capture method that is as easy to use as pen and paper.”
All EHR systems must rely on some form of data capture to get healthcare information into the digital domain. The data capture options that are often considered–desktop data entry, laptops, tablet PCs, or voice recording–have limitations in many clinical processes.
Digital pen technology allows healthcare data to be captured digitally without changing how clinicians do their work, thus minimizing associated training and workflow interruption costs. This in turn eliminates many of the barriers to EHR adoption, and most agree that a high EHR adoption rate is critical to better patient care and reducing healthcare costs over the long term, says Carpenter.
“Even better, the digital pen technology allows clinicians to do what they do best, have face-to-face contact with patients, something very important to both healthcare practitioners and their patients but something that is not possible with other data capture devices such as laptops or desktop computers,” says Carpenter.
Anoto technology has two main components: The Anoto digital pen and the Anoto dot pattern. The digital pen has a tiny digital camera under the tip of the pen that takes pictures at 70 times per second as the user writes. The Anoto dot pattern is a microscopic series of dots placed on an invisible grid on the paper that the user writes on. This dot pattern is printed on regular paper with standard desktop printers. The dot pattern just looks like a faint gray background to the user, but to the digital pen, the dot pattern indicates where on the page the user is writing and on which page. All that positioning information is stored in the pen’s memory as X, Y coordinates.
When the pen is synched with a PC via a USB docking station or through Bluetooth transmission, the X, Y coordinates can be uploaded into any of a wide variety of applications developed by Anoto partners that translate the X, Y coordinates into an image of the handwriting that is much clearer and more accurate than if the document had been scanned. Usually, handwriting recognition software is then applied. This translates the handwriting into machine-readable data which can then be imported easily into any EHR or other back-end system.
Not even physicians’ often indecipherable handwriting can foil the technology. “That’s easy,” says Carpenter. “We set up a database for each medical field and special software can translate most terms based on what’s in the database. There’s intelligence behind it to interpret it.”