“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a common axiom that offers advice both wise and foolish. It’s wise because there is an efficiency involved in not giving one’s time and attention to things that are not problematic. Your time is not an infinite or replaceable resource, so invest it in the people who matter and the tasks that are necessary. The foolishness comes into play because some things that ain’t broke ain’t always the best things for us or the situation.
This came to mind recently when reading a story in the venerable tech journal Computerworld on the topic of the fax machine and how that archaic device remains in common use in medical offices and other healthcare facilities. According to the article, “As recently as 2019, seven in 10 hospitals were still relying on fax machines and phone lines to transfer and retrieve patient records or order prescriptions, according to the latest figures from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).”
Just the Fax, Ma’am
Seventy percent of hospitals still use fax machines. Doing some quick math, the American Hospital Association (AHA) says there are 6,129 hospitals in the United States as of 2022, meaning there are no fewer than 4,290 fax machines humming away in those facilities. And because those machines are connecting and communicating with pharmacies, private practices, insurance companies, and other healthcare services providers, there are at least another 4,290 fax machines in use to receive the transmissions. It’s more likely that for every hospital fax there are many more in service and so there are probably tens of thousands of fax machines out there sending and receiving sensitive protected health information (PHI) regulated under the auspices of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Computerworld says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which operates one of the largest healthcare networks in the country, remains a heavy fax user. The VA describes the Veterans Health Administration as “the largest integrated health care system in the United States, providing care at 1,298 health care facilities, including 171 VA Medical Centers and 1,113 outpatient sites of care of varying complexity (VHA outpatient clinics) to over 9 million Veterans enrolled in the VA health care program.”
Fax Needs Fixing
The problem seems to be, in part, the lack of consistent standardization in health data. Even though the federal government emphasized and incentivized a shift to electronic health records (EHR) as a part of the Affordable Care Act, many organizations still maintain proprietary systems for the collection and management of health records, complicating the migration to interoperability. As a result, Mutaz Shegewi, research director for Worldwide Healthcare Provider Digital Strategies at IDC told Computerworld, “Yes, the majority of healthcare providers do still use paper and electronic fax. I wouldn’t be surprised if fax use increases in a digitized format. EHRs have come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work being done. Interoperability is still a problem, because most EHRs are not fully compatible with one another.”
The challenges associated with EHR incompatibility came into sharper focus during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the U.S. federal government and the pharmaceuticals industry touted the speed and efficiency of data sharing behind Operation Warp Speed and the race to develop a vaccine, reliance on fax machines, paper records, and spreadsheets meant a lot of valuable data remained bottlenecked in manual data sharing processes.
A Long Road
Dr. Caitlin Rivers of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a founding associate director of the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Ars Technica, “There’s a lot of manual data entry. There’s a lot of faxing. There’s a lot of emailing spreadsheets. And if we could claw back some of that manpower and put it towards public health practice, put it towards actually keeping people healthier, that’s going to be a huge win. [But] when you’re starting from fax machines, it’s gonna be a long road back.”
Computerworld seems to agree, stating that, “Until someone comes up with a more secure and prolific method for transmitting patient information and prescription requests, the aging systems aren’t going anywhere.”
More secure than a fax machine—notorious for being ignored while reams of takeout menus, memos, and more sensitive printouts accumulate in their “received” trays—is a low bar to hurdle. And yes, there are electronic fax services and software products that avoid the printout and can be fortified with integrated security features, but the underlying problem remains that the fax seems to persist because it is familiar—and it works. But it desperately needs fixing.
There is a Solution
We suggest that secure, managed file transfer is one safe and prolific method for transmitting patient information that is also in wide use in hospitals and other healthcare delivery organizations, health insurance networks, pharmacies, and other health-related services organizations. Our own Diplomat MFT is used for that purpose by some of the country’s largest healthcare networks and most respected hospitals. It’s easy to use, automates critical processes like encryption, scheduling, and data capture, and robust enough to handle the largest files and thousands of scheduled and ad hoc transfers each day. Diplomat MFT is also engineered to be compatible with all the major cloud services as well as back-end data management systems so that it can easily and reliably access and send the data where it needs to be when it needs to be there.
And because Diplomat MFT is available in three editions designed to meet the needs of organizations of every size—and ethically priced to ensure cost is never a barrier to security and efficiency—we’re confident that we’ve got a solution to the problem of the archaic fax. Why not request a demonstration and see for yourself?