Getting the fax straight

By Erin McCann
12:21 PM

Why fax technologies continue to find favor among healthcare providers

Some veteran technologies know how to stand their ground -- this despite the modern technology takeover threatening to expunge their very existence. Video was slated to kill the radio star, but no crime was recorded.  The automobile industry was expected to drive out railroads, but trains are still on track. 

In the healthcare realm, fax has also flaunted its feisty figure amidst a burgeoning epoch of innovative health information technology. According to the annual National Physicians Survey released in June this year, fax still remains the predominant form of communication for 63 percent of healthcare providers, and some experts say it will continue to feed into the future. 

Fax technology continues to be modernized and reshaped -- an adaption that contributes to its resilient nature, said Neal McCann, vice president of strategic partnership at fax services company, Biscom, The company has watched its sales increase by 20 percent this year alone, sending the message that fax is more than resilient, successful even. 

"The reason why it's going to be around for many years down the road is that people associate fax with paper and a machine, when really it's a file format that's compatible with the phone network," McCann said.  So, "it's not going away, it's just morphing a little bit."

Fax technologies can now integrate into electronic medical records (EMRs), where patient information can be sent to both the physician as well as to the EMR system. 

Hospital radiology departments are also finding favor with fax technology, officials say. McCann mentioned one of Biscom's solutions, DiNet, a digital imaging network that meets HIPAA standards and allows physicians to send high definition radiographs and other images to healthcare providers. 

This technology is not reminiscent of your mom and pop's fax machine, explained Don Dunning, CEO of Biscom. Mobile applications for Androids and iPhones are available so the user can access the faxes via virtually any mobile device. 

Moreover, what's taken off lately is fax technology that is entirely software-based, requiring no hardware whatsoever. Many clients have traded in their fax boards for the more cost-efficient fax software. 

Ben McLendon, director of information technology at the Valdosta, Ga.-based Barnes Healthcare Services, said Barnes utilizes a hybrid hosted fax solution, part cloud and part hardware. "It allows us to be a little less dependent on power and telecommunications here at our headquarters. So even if we're down," McLendon continued, "faxes are still coming in." 

When asked why the technology still remains successful even today, McLendon surmised, "People have a comfort level with fax." In addition to providers being familiar with this kind of technology, he also added that the healthcare industry remains predominantly paper-intensive, so it makes sense to utilize fax if you're a physician with copious pages of patient files and you know how to use the system. 

That may be, but amidst the homages proclaimed by fax proponents, some experts point out that the technology also comes with limitations. 

Despite some available fax solutions that meet HIPAA standards, "Most healthcare providers do not have fax machines with special encryption technology," said Dave Caldwell, EVP of San Jose, Calif.-based Certify Data Systems, a health information exchange (HIE) services company. 

"Faxes are sometimes sent to the wrong fax number or left unattended in an area without proper security," Caldwell continued. "There is no verification that sent faxes are actually received by the intended party," something that could present serious concerns pertaining to HIPAA violations. 

According to Caldwell, now is the time to put the veteran technology to rest. "If we as a nation are going to have a significant impact on the cost and quality of care, we must move quickly to electronic means for moving clinical and administrative information across a care community."

So why have we yet to see a paradigm shift away from fax?  Two reasons, said Caldwell. First, the healthcare industry still uses fax as its predominate form of communication due to the industry's slow transition to ambulatory EMRs. Second, the industry has upped its efforts to digitalize medical information, which only increases physician reliability on fax. 

If the healthcare industry wants to move forward, a qualified and proven HIE, Caldwell said, is the better alternative to fax, as it is both cost efficient and more secure overall.   

So regardless which message you choose receive, in today's age, faxing has yet to be rerouted within the healthcare industry. When redialing-in decades from now, perhaps the veteran technology will have finally retired, but until then, fax continues to hold its own.