Medical Needs Cycle: Must-Have Software for Small Medical Practices

The medical software market’s varied offerings and wide-ranging prices make it difficult for independent physicians to navigate. Searching for the right software takes valuable time and resources away from focusing on patient care and timely reimbursement.

What’s more, if physicians only focus on the software functions they need to launch their practice without also planning ahead for longer-term health IT investments, we estimate that as many as one in four physicians will be forced to sell their independent practice within five years.

To avoid this, physicians must implement the right technology solutions at the right times throughout a practice’s lifespan. This way, patients won’t leave your small practice for larger, more tech-savvy providers.

That’s where we come in. With this Needs Cycle, we’ll help you understand your software feature options and figure out when to invest in different types of health IT during every period of your practice’s growth.

With this guide, you’ll be better equipped to find software solutions that meet your needs, so you only pay for the functions you’ll actually use. We’ll break down what technology a small medical provider needs to start treating patients at a new practice, to grow their capabilities over time and to optimize operations down the line.


needs cycle for small medical practices infographic

We consulted several primary and secondary research sources to choose the technologies featured in this graph, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Discussions with real medical practices: Software Advice has a team of software experts that provides free telephone consultations to medical practices searching for software. We studied 1,500 of these buyer discussions to gauge demand for medical software functions by practice size. (Learn more about these buyer discussions here.)
  • Survey of Software Advice experts: We surveyed Software Advice’s team of medical software experts to vet our selections for functionalities featured in the Needs Cycle.
  • Analysis of Gartner research: We leveraged Gartner research content, including Hype Cycle reports cited later in this guide, to help choose some of the technologies featured.

While this guide can be a helpful resource for any medical professional, it’s specifically written for small practices. It is informed by particular challenges small practice physicians face that large, multispecialty providers may not, such as: tighter budgets, little-or-no dedicated IT services and limited support staff.

Health IT to Start With

This section is for small practices that are just opening and need core functionality to handle daily tasks.

1. Patient Scheduling

What it is: Scheduling software helps you set and manage patient appointments. You enter patients’ contact information, demographics, appointment time, chief complaints and billing information.

See a sample patient scheduling screenshot and more detailed descriptions here.

Why you need it to start: Very few practices nowadays use handwritten records or general scheduling programs (e.g., Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar). When it comes to the depth and breadth of information you can capture with dedicated patient scheduling software compared to those simpler alternatives, the software wins hands down.

Patient scheduling is first on our Needs Cycle for a reason. When we analyzed the most frequently requested applications among a sample of 1,500 medical software buyers, we found patient scheduling to be the most popular one:

chart showing percentage of practices looking for patient scheduling software

Key considerations:

  • Features of electronic health records (EHR) usually includes some scheduling capabilities, so hold off on buying a stand-alone scheduling system if you’re also shopping for an EHR.
  • To really leverage scheduling technology, consider systems that send automated phone, email or text message reminders to patients. These features may cost extra, but they’re popular with patients as a means of preventing no-shows.

2. Electronic Health Records (EHR)

What it is: The features of electronic health records (EHRs) work together to automate your clinical operations. They provide digital storage of patient charts and include functionality to track patient demographics, histories, SOAP notes, medications, test results and more.

See a sample EHR screenshot and more detailed descriptions here.

Why you need it to start: EHR use plays a major role in qualifying for government health care regulations (e.g., MACRA, MIPS) that incentivize health IT adoption. Hundreds of thousands of of practices have already adopted these systems, so not having one puts you at a competitive disadvantage compared to your peers.

That said, government mandates aren’t the only reason you need an EHR. The benefits of these systems include greater data accessibility and searchability, improved clinical reporting and greater care coordination. In our study of medical software buyers, eight out of 10 practitioners told us they want an EHR:

chart showing percentages of small practices looking for an ehr system

Key considerations:

  • Opt for an ONC-ATCB certified EMR, which meets capability standards set by government health officials. For example, ensuring the system offers e-prescribing functions.
  • You should also look for systems with integrated population health tools, such as care path enablement and gaps-in-care reporting. These tools will become increasingly important as health care payment models shift from volume of services rendered to value of treatment.
  • If you’re interested in any data trends specific to your practice, many EHR systems include robust reporting and analytic tools. With this functionality, you have the option to learn more about how your practice is operating and how it can operate better. For example, you might look at spending over time and see opportunities to save money and spend it elsewhere.

3. Billing

What it is: Medical billing systems help providers generate patient statements, manage collections and create financial reports. They also automate the process of coding, submitting and tracking claims.

See sample billing screenshots and more detailed descriptions here.

Why you need it to start: Chances are you got into medicine to help people—not to agonize over rejected claims and complicated ICD-10 codes. Using billing software is like having a digital assistant to make sure your claims are accurate and provide data-driven insights on your practice’s financial health.

This software is so essential to small practices that about three-quarters of the solo physicians we spoke with say they plan on buying billing software:

chart showing percentage of small practices looking for medical billing software

Key considerations:

  • The only reason you would not need dedicated billing software is if you’re outsourcing billing to a third-party service, which takes a percentage of your collections. Find out whether you should be outsourcing your billing here.
  • Small practices typically do not need a separate accounting solution, since medical billing systems handle patient accounts, posting payments, printing statements and running ledger reports.

Health IT to Help You Grow

This section is for practices looking to save time and increase revenue by leveraging mobile devices and patient-facing technology.

4. Patient Portal

What it is: These secure websites give patients anytime access to messages, services and information from your practice. That includes the ability to review medical records, pay bills, book appointments, request medication refills and more.

See more detailed descriptions of patient portal functionalities here.

Why you need it to grow: Patient portals are usually the MVPs—Most Versatile Players—of medical practices. They automate so many administrative tasks that you’ll be able to free up your staff to focus on higher-priority initiatives. The online bill pay feature means you’ll also get paid faster.

Portals are key to practice growth because patients are increasingly expecting more convenient and seamless forms of communication with their care teams. In a recent survey of U.S. patients, we found a significant percentage are open to using these time-saving features:

The six most-requested patient portal features

Key considerations:

  • Check with your EHR vendor before purchasing stand-alone patient portal software, because you might not need a separate system. Certified EHRs, for example, have been evaluated to ensure they already include a patient portal.
  • Before implementing a patient portal, make sure your staff is committed to actually using it and showing patients how it works. Patients hate it when you don’t answer portal messages in a timely manner or send them a link without further explanation. Your portal should be a helpful asset, not a confusing afterthought.
  • A significant portion of the medical software buyers we spoke with specifically called out secure, HIPAA-compliant patient-to-physician messaging when talking about their patient portal needs. If communication with patients is a struggle for you, definitely consider a patient portal system with this functionality to make conversations between you and your patients easier.

5. Tablet Integration

What it is: Tablets (e.g., Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy Tab) are mobile computers. Physicians are increasingly using these mobile device to access their EHRs, demonstrate educational materials to patients, look up medical research and more.

Why you need it to grow: Desktop computers or laptops will meet your initial needs, but they can be bulky and inconvenient when entering patient information. You’ll probably want a more portable alternative. As many as 63 percent of physicians are using tablets for professional purposes and studies find high satisfaction rates with the technology among users.

Tablets have become so common in healthcare that many vendors have designed their user interface to be mobile-friendly or have developed native EHR apps to meet demand. According to one EHR vendor, physicians that use tablets save up to six minutes per patient compared to desktop EHR users.

patient using tablet

Physician using a tablet for patient education

Key considerations:

  • While tablets made for the general public may suit your practice just fine, it’s worth noting that tablets specifically designed for the healthcare industry do exist. These are usually built to be sturdier and easier to disinfect than your average tablet.
  • It’s incredibly important to make sure your new tablet has encryption technology to prevent HIPAA violations. Read more about avoiding HIPAA violations here.

6. Speech Recognition

What it is: Speech recognition software specifically designed for medical practices allows physicians to speak into a recording device and automatically see their words transcribed to text. This is especially helpful when documenting clinical notes.

Why you need it to optimize: Many speech recognition solutions integrate with EHRs, so you won’t have to spend as much time typing data. This is a bigger benefit than you may realize, considering an American College of Physicians study found doctors are spending approximately twice as much time doing paperwork than treating patients.

As your practice grows, you’ll have less time between patients to finish up clinical documentation in the EHR. This software will come in handy then—allowing you to keep comprehensive records without working tons of extra hours.

After all, a recent physician survey (available for free to Medscape members) cites “spending too many hours at work” as one of three leading causes of physician burnout:

Too many bureaucratic tasks
Spending too many hours at work
Feeling like “just a cog in the wheel”

Key considerations:

  • You may need to buy a separate recording device or headset to implement this technology. However, some solutions can operate with the microphone in your mobile device or laptop.
  • Some practices may be skeptical about how well these systems transcribe their voice. Fear not! One Kentucky-based physician says colleagues at his practice can expect “95 percent accuracy” once they start using speech recognition software.

Health IT for Optimization

This section is for established practices seeking to optimize operations with tech to improve the process of documenting/sharing health information and managing patient relationships.

7. Telemedicine

What it is: The term “telemedicine” refers to any technology that supports remote medical services, such as video consultations, virtual monitoring and remote evaluations.

Telemedicine is such a multifaceted technology that it has its own Hype Cycle from Gartner researchers (available to Gartner clients).

Integrating telemedicine into your daily routine can be intimidating, but, according to these three medical providers, it’s absolutely worth it. Not to mention your patients want it, too. We recommend small practices start simple by offering video consultations—the use of a video-chat enabled platform to meet with patients remotely.

Why you need it to grow: According to a Gartner research prediction, 25 percent of all care in the U.S. will be delivered virtually by 2020. That is an incredibly compelling statistic, considering an overwhelming majority of providers (up to 75 percent!) have only just begun exploring telehealth adoption.

If you introduce telemedicine soon, you’ll have a competitive edge over your colleagues.

Certain types of care will always need to be delivered in person, but this trend is not to be ignored if small practices want to survive tech-driven shifts in health care delivery.

You don’t have to wait until 2020 to start seeing the benefits of telemedicine at your practice. Video consultations allow you to expand your patient panel by reaching residents of rural areas. You can also see more patients per day and decrease the likelihood of appointment no-shows.

In our survey of nearly 400 U.S. patients, we found that 77 percent were inclined to choose a new doctor if they offered telemedicine over practices that don’t.

Likelihood of Choosing a Doctor Offering Telemedicine
chart showing likelihood of choosing a doctor if they offer telemedicine services

Key considerations:

  • Some EHR vendors offer integrated or add-on telemedicine functionalities, but these aren’t terribly common just yet. Check out a comparison of different telemedicine solutions—including a free one—researched by Capterra’s Cathy Reisenwitz.
  • Depending on the platform you choose, you may have to budget for some additional upfront costs. These may include boosting your practice’s internet speed to optimize connectivity and investing in a web camera. For more telemedicine implementation tips, click here.

8. Patient Relationship Management

What it is: “Patient relationship management” (PRM) systems, sometimes classified as patient engagement software or healthcare customer relationship systems, help physicians maintain frequent communication with patients (e.g., via newsletters), collect patient feedback (e.g. via satisfaction surveys) and/or manage the practice’s online presence (e.g., via social media channels).

Why you need it to optimize: In any given year, one out of 10 patients considers switching doctors. This statistic from Vanderbilt University highlights the importance of maintaining strong relationships with your patients to avoid losing them to another provider.

Additionally, Gartner’s “Hype Cycle for Health Care Providers, 2017,” (content available to Gartner clients), gave health care CRM systems a “high” benefit ranking.

PRM systems can help you retain and attract patients. Users can check in on existing patients by sending them health screening reminders or educational materials. You can also promote your practice by launching email marketing campaigns or monitoring your reviews on sites such as Yelp.

In a recent survey of U.S. patients, we found that 82 percent consult online reviews sites while choosing a doctor:

Frequency With Which Patients Use Reviews Sites
chart showing frequency of patients using review sites

Key considerations:

  • EHR vendors are increasingly offering “patient relationship management” or “patient engagement” systems as add-on modules that can integrate with their clinical/practice management applications.
  • Make it a best practice to follow up on feedback you get thanks to your PRM system. For example: if patients are routinely reporting wait times are too long, make a plan to reduce them and update patients on your progress through email.

9. Direct Messaging

What it is: Using Direct secure messaging (aka “Direct”) is like having a super-secure email address specifically designed to share sensitive health information with other physicians or patients. Practices can get a Direct address through a software vendor, a Health Information Exchange (HIE) network or another type of Health Internet Service Provider (HISP).

Why you need it to optimize: Doctors often need to share health information with colleagues and patients, but there’s no easy way to do that. The health IT industry is still figuring out how to make EHR systems truly interoperable, which means systems from different vendors would be able to transfer patient data so authorized providers can access/interpret that data.

Your practice shouldn’t have to wait for interoperability to become a reality. You can start reaping the following benefits right now if you implement Direct to optimize your practice’s operations:

Benefits of Direct Secure Messaging

Cost Savings. Direct messenger can cut costs in the long run by reducing or eliminating the need to spend money on paper to fax or mail patient health information.

Efficiency. Office staff won’t have to take extra time out of their day to make copies of clinical documents you want to send to authorized parties.

Convenience. If you have a follow-up question for a provider in your referral network, direct messaging is faster than coordinating a time to talk on the phone.

Security. Unlike other methods of exchanging health information, direct messaging has layers of encryption and authentication to ensure communications are HIPAA-compliant.

Key considerations:

  • Some EHRs integrate Direct in their solutions. However, experts say the interfaces are often difficult to use and understand. If you’re not satisfied with the way your EHR vendor offers Direct technology, you can always use Direct on a separate application.
  • While the number of physicians using Direct has risen every year since 2014, many physicians still don’t know what it is. You may need to reach out to colleagues and encourage them to get a Direct address if you want to exchange messages with them.

Next Steps

The hard part is over! Now that you know what to look for in a medical software system, it will be infinitely easier to assess all the options out there and make an informed decision for your practice.

If you want to save even more time, we’ve got you covered with the following resources to make software selection a breeze:

  • Fill out this free questionnaire. We’ll create a shortlist of five products that meet your needs and suit your budget. Just tell us what you’re looking for, and we’ll narrow down all the products in our database at no charge to you.
  • Check out the FrontRunners quadrant for EMR software. This is a list of top performing solutions in the market, evaluated on value and capability scores that are powered by Gartner Methodology.
  • Download our free pricing guides for EHR and Medical Billing systems.These guides will help you understand how software is priced, what actual vendors are charging nowadays and why you need to budget for hidden costs.

You may also like

Should You Offer Telemedicine Services? Patients Weigh In

EMR Pricing Explained: Your Guide to Upfront, Recurring & Hidden Costs

New Medical Practice Checklist: How to Get Started

Fill Out This Free Medical Pricing Questionnaire