Internet Helps Doctor Get Back to Basics

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Dr. Howard Stark’s office is quiet. Very quiet. No patients sit in his waiting room. No receptionist answers the telephone. Stark does not have a receptionist. Instead, he and his assistant Michele Norris-Bell check e-mail alerts on handheld devices and — between seeing patients in person — on a desktop computer.

Stark has moved most of his practice, based in Washington, onto the Internet and he couldn’t be happier. Since he started his Web-based service two years ago, he has received 14,000 e-mails. And yet, he feels more like an old-fashioned family doctor in a small town than a modern, harried physician.

“That’s 14,000 phone calls that we did not have to answer and that patients did not have to make,” Stark said. He does not charge for answering an e-mail. “You have to come in one time a year for an annual exam,” Stark said.

The rest is free — prescription refills, quick questions about medication, even questions about unusual stings. “What do I get? A picture of the scorpion that bit the patient in Belize,” Stark laughed. “I said, ‘it would have been better to send me a picture of your leg.'”

He also gets updates on patients’ personal lives.

“People say how impersonal e-mail is. No way. It is so personal because I can hear what is going on with the kids,” Stark said in an interview at his otherwise ordinary office. “It keeps me a lot closer to what is going on with my patients,” he added. “I feel like I have taken 21st century medicine back to being more like the old-fashioned physician who knows how your family is doing.”

Health experts, the U.S. government, labor unions, employers and average citizens all agree the U.S. health care system badly needs improvement.

Soaring Costs, Long Waits
Costs are soaring and yet the average physician, according to many estimates, spends only about 10 minutes with each patient. Harried desk staff often double- and even triple-book each appointment slot to make optimal use of the doctor’s time and to make sure the overheads are covered.

“They are seeing patients every 10 minutes and from 7 a.m. to 7 at night. They don’t even have time to learn how to save time,” Stark said. “The medical profession is being pushed to the edge.”

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Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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