21st Century Challenges Shouldn’t Depend on 20th Century Technology

In less than a year, unprecedented innovation across health care has turned the dream of a COVID-19 vaccine into a reality. But as we’ve already started to see, the vaccine rollout brings a whole new set of challenges for care providers on the front lines. Physicians remain responsible for treating and educating patients with COVID and non-COVID-related symptoms, completing paperwork — and now, supporting inoculation efforts. Pharmacists remain responsible for filling prescriptions, counseling patients, conducting COVID-19 tests — and now, administering COVID-19 vaccines. As our health care workers’ roles continue to evolve and expand, we can help clinicians perform the work they were trained to do by reducing their administrative tasks.

Clinician burnout due to increasing patient volume, growing administrative burdens and the reliance on antiquated technology has weighed down the industry for years —and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. According to a recent poll, roughly 79 percent of pharmacists said an increased workload raised their stress level in 2020, while a separate survey found that two-thirds of physicians reported worsening burnout levels during the pandemic. 

As patients’ health care locations changed or went virtual due to COVID-19, the need for seamless information sharing between care providers, payers and patients has accelerated. Last year, more than 1 million prescribers sent prescriptions to pharmacies electronically — an increase of 25,000 since December 2019 — and health systems nationwide sent more than 4 million electronic case reports for COVID-19 diagnoses to public health agencies.

Yet, as COVID-19 accelerates digital transformation in health care, our health care system continues to rely on insufficient technology like fax machines, which is tantamount to building a skyscraper with Legos. This outdated and antiquated technology — invented in 1843, to be exact — puts health data at risk, slows down the transfer of information, disrupts productivity, and can even delay a patient’s treatment. Despite this exhaustive list, faxes still account for 75 percent of all medical communications across the health care sector

As a result, there is a web of differing state and local reporting requirements that still depend mostly on outdated fax technology. Throughout the country, providers are delivering hundreds of thousands of diagnosis reports via fax, and data is being manually entered into the public health agency’s database. Health departments have reported hundreds of pages of test results spilling across the floor. This information-sharing system is no match for the rapidly spreading coronavirus and will only worsen as health care providers share vaccination information with one another and health agencies using this outdated tool. With burnout on the rise, this approach is not sustainable. 

Simply put, there are smarter ways to work. Technology solutions that already exist can alleviate care providers’ administrative burdens. The software systems used today by prescribers and pharmacists can instantly clarify prescription information such as cost, request a change to a prescription, or process a prior authorization instead of calling or faxing the provider. 

At a time when communication and connection across the health care industry are more important than ever, delivering trusted actionable intelligence effectively and efficiently between prescribers, health plans and pharmacists is critical. It should be no surprise that half of pharmacists surveyed in another poll ranked “workflow integration” at the top of their list of helpful resources. 

Prescribers and pharmacists have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic for roughly a year, and their dependence on inefficient, manual processes is only growing. But what if the future of health care didn’t rely on technology from the past? The broader health care industry must support our front-line workers in their efforts to combat COVID-19. Let’s exchange fax machines for in-workflow, standards-based solutions that align better with patient care. By eliminating the need for ad hoc communications, we can reduce errors, save time, lower costs and ensure quality care.


Tom Skelton is the CEO of Surescripts, the nation’s leading health information network.

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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated the number of electronic case reports for COVID-19 diagnoses sent to public health agencies due to editor error.

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