Are virtual medical assistants worth it?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published October 14, 2021

Key Takeaways

Despite being a human tragedy of incalculable measure, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought around some positive change in healthcare. Specifically, it has boosted the use of telehealth management and remote monitoring systems, as well as high-level automation, personalized services, and artificial intelligence-enabled devices.

One aspect of telehealth that is gaining steam is the use of virtual medical assistants (VMAs) to facilitate workflow in physicians’ offices. Let’s take a closer look based on a variety of healthcare sources.

Who are virtual medical assistants?

VMAs perform administrative tasks that help keep a healthcare practice ticking and save doctors valuable time that is better spent with patients. They can take the form of flesh-and-blood receptionists or aides who work remotely and help compose a virtual medical staff.

Here are some common roles fulfilled by VMAs:

  • Scheduling patient appointments

  • Entering and collecting patient data

  • Handling of payments, documentation, referrals, and transcripts.

  • Responding to patient questions to clarify patient understanding via email, social media, or phone calls

  • Securing and organizing medical records

  • Planning of patient visits based on medical records and disease severity

  • Detailing and documenting insurance coverage

  • Verifying insurance coverage before physician work-up

  • Completing paperwork associated with insurance coverage

  • Following up with patients

Benefits of virtual assistants

The use of VMAs can help distribute labor in an efficient manner and relieve the burden of current staff. According to SmartClinix, a project by American Telephysicians, the benefits of VMAs are manifold.

  • They relieve physicians of the hassle of collecting, organizing, updating, and managing patient data. By doing so, the physician garners precious time to handle pressing matters and fulfill other responsibilities.

  • VMAs boost the quality of interactions that patients have with their patients. They allow the physician to spend more quality time building the physician-patient relationship.

  • Virtual assistants expand the scope of the practice by performing diverse responsibilities.

  • They free up office space by being remote, and allow expansion of the office space to add clinical equipment and instrumentation as needed.

Cons of virtual assistants

Although the potential benefits of VMAs are great, there may be some drawbacks, according to Bottleneck Medical Distance Services.

For one, communication may be compromised by phone calls, chat, and video teleconferences with VMAs. For instance, power or internet outages can cut off access. In these cases, it is important to build in contingency planning and make sure that your current, in-real-life staff can shoulder the burden during times of exigency.

Another issue that may crop up with VMAs involves lack of supervision, which can lead to errors. Because these helpers are working remotely, there is scant opportunity to help them as they work. Their output needs to be reviewed and corrected for errors and their performance needs to be evaluated at intervals—especially in the beginning, when they are training to meet the needs of your practice. It’s a good idea to foster open lines of communication and encourage your VMAs to ask questions or seek help as needed.

One concern that can never be overlooked in a world guided by HIPAA is compromised data. VMAs tap into information from outside your network, where external security concerns may crop up. It’s important to set up protocols to combat this threat, and ensure that the VMA does everything in his or her power to reduce the risk of data compromise. To this end, policies and procedures are crucial. Keep in mind that other staff can help you come up with safeguards against data leaks.

On a related note, it merits mentioning that artificial Intelligence has powered the use of electronic virtual medical assistants. These assistants can help with medical record navigation via machine learning and natural language processing to search, analyze, and record clinical data from the EMR. They can also assist with medical transcription by these same mechanisms. Patients can also use digital VMAs to search for medical information and gain personalized responses.

Bottom line

On the whole, VMAs may be a good idea if you run a busy practice and your bandwidth is strained by various responsibilities. Although there are concerns about supervising remote workers or data security, the benefits of efficiency and increased personal time with patients can easily outweigh any drawbacks. Employing virtual medical assistants, however, requires some preparation and protocols, as well as contingency plans in case access is cut off by internet outages or to cover other unforeseen circumstances.

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