If all goes well, Great Neck, N.Y., surgeon Ken Rosenthal may be able to shave 15 minutes off of the time it takes his staff to process a patient's information, thanks to the beta version of a computer system he's about to test. As of this writing, the system is days from going live, and Dr. Rosenthal took time out to explain what it may or may not be able to do.

How it Would Work
The system will allow patients to enter information through a Web page. When new patients call for an appointment, they'll receive a user name and a password. They can then visit Dr. Rosenthal's website, and click on a link that will take them to a page that's actually tied to a page at the website of NextGen, the system's maker. There, the patient will provide data like his demographic and insurance information, and any medications he's taking. NextGen stores the information on its server. When Dr. Rosenthal's server queries the NextGen machine, using the proper password, the server transfers the information. The system will also allow patients to schedule appointments. For scheduling, the patient gives two or three dates. The staff then checks these against their open slots.

Dr. Rosenthal thinks the system will "help reduce patients' in-office time, and will allow the staff to spend more time on direct patient care, rather than entering patient information."

"Our records system requires the specific dosage and dosing schedule," he adds. "For patients with 10 or 15 meds, it can take 10 minutes just to list them manually as we do now."

The system is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and doesn't allow patients to view any information other than what they put in with their password.

Initial Questions
Though the system looks good on paper, there are some challenges that may come to the fore should it become widely available.

 • It's not for every practice. Dr. Rosenthal's office was chosen as a beta site because of his patient population's computer literacy rate. In a recent study conducted at the practice, 85 percent of his patients use a computer regularly. This won't be the case in every practice.

 • The data is initially stored at a remote site. Instead of the patient information coming into the office immediately from the Web, the office's computer has to request it from NextGen. Dr. Rosenthal says it's "theoretically possible" that the NextGen server could go down. However, once the information is in his system, it's safe from a crash at the NextGen server. "We haven't had any serious downtime with NextGen's servers," he says. "And they have redundacies to avoid such problems."

 • Manual recording. Patients will still have to sign documents, and they'll have to provide insurance cards. There may also be patients who can get to the Web but have trouble filling out the form for any number of reasons.
"To ensure completeness and avoid any medical errors, we'll ask the patients to review their form," says Dr. Rosenthal.

Though the program may not work well for everyone, Dr. Rosenthal thinks it can still help.

"If even a small percentage of a practice's patients can do this," he says, "it will save its staff that much more time."