Monday, September 24, 2007

For Members Only

Whenever a person considers joining a professional association two questions immediately need to be answered: “How much are dues?” and “What’s in it for me?” People don’t join these organizations just because they think it’s a cool idea. They pay their dues in the hope of reaping certain well-defined benefits from the privileges of membership.

Those benefits can come in all shapes and sizes. For the self-employed or small business owner, the benefits of membership may include professional networking opportunities -- or the chance to get affordable health insurance through a group plan. A professional association may also work to define industry standards or provide continuing education courses focused on the needs of its membership. An association’s newsletter might enlighten members about legal developments affecting their work. Meetings and trade shows can bring members face to face with the vendors whose products and services will be of use to their businesses.

In most cases, merely paying one’s dues isn’t enough. The level of benefits one receives from being visible within an organization is directly proportional to the amount of energy one puts into using one’s membership. For those who can attend an association’s annual and/or regional conference, there is a tremendous opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Important connections and introductions can be made (a lot of this depends on being in the right place at the right time). Friendships and strategic alliances with colleagues in the same industry can be nurtured and fed.

Many members, however, simply don’t have the time or money to travel to conventions and trade shows. As much as they might desire to hear certain keynote speakers, some feel that only “the in crowd” benefits from attending conferences (or that, for personal reasons, the networking that is supposed to be so valuable at these conferences won’t really do them much good). Others, whose budgets have suffered severe cutbacks, feel it is irresponsible to spend what little money is available to them on airfare, hotels, conference fees, and meals when their purchasing power has been so drastically curtailed. After the horrifying events of 9/11, many have chosen to avoid air travel whenever possible.

In order to become more responsive to their memberships, professional organizations have been forced to make the most of today’s new media. In the past five years, association websites have undergone a remarkable transformation from small electronic brochures which outlined the benefits of membership into extensive, interactive websites hosting virtual libraries of industry-specific information. Many feature online stores so that members can purchase books, memberships, association mugs, and taped recordings of previous seminars. As web technology has evolved, associations have been able to refocus their overhead costs by employing software that allows members to manage their own accounts, register for conferences, make hotel reservations for trade shows, and communicate with association staff.

While electronic publishing has certainly not eliminated the traditional hard copy association newsletter, it has brought more immediacy to the distribution of industry news while offering advertisers more opportunities to reach association members through the use of banner ads, popup screens and hypertext-linked sponsorship announcements. Many associations now offer continuing education courses online. Others have broadcast key speeches and seminars via streaming video so that thousands of association members could have access to a critical event -- no matter where they were or at what time they chose to view the web broadcast.

The growing immediacy and interactivity of the web has forced many associations to take a good hard look in the mirror and think about who their members are and how the association can better serve them. I, personally, have been flabbergasted over the past few years to witness the American Association for Medical Transcription put so much energy into finding an Errors & Omissions insurance policy that its members could purchase when what home-based medical transcriptionists really need – especially those who are independent contractors, statutory employees, or part-time workers – is access to an affordable group health plan. If professional associations such as the National Writer’s Union, San Francisco's Media Alliance, and a large number of special interest nonprofit organizations can make a group health plan available to their members, why not AAMT (which has nearly 20 times as many members as MTIA)? I can’t think of a better way to make medical transcriptionists want to join that professional association!

As part of its recent overhaul of the website for the Medical Transcription Industry Alliance, MTIA has added two features that will be of particular interest to readers of this column. The MTIA website now boasts two 30-minute pay-per-view multimedia tutorials on how the HIPAA regulations (which go into effect on April 14, 2003) impact the medical transcription industry.

Written by Elaine Olson, CMT, of Stat Enterprises, Inc., the first is entitled “HIPAA and the MT Employee – How Federal Regulations Affect WhatYou, A Transcriptionist Employee, Do To Be Compliant.” In this presentation, Olson addresses such questions as “Do you, the MT employee, know what's required for HIPAA compliance by your employer?” “Do you, the employer, know you must provide staff training on HIPAA and compliance?”

Entitled “HIPAA and the Medical Transcription Independent Contractor,” the second presentation addresses such questions as “Do you know what to look for in a Business Associate contract?” “If you farm out work to other ICs, what is your accountability?” “What if there is a breach?” “Are your policies and procedures for HIPAA in place?” “Do you, the employee, know company policies and procedures on compliance?”

Considering the vague -- and often wildly obtuse -- information about HIPAA that has been floating around the industry with regard to medical transcription, I cannot urge readers strongly enough to make use of whichever MTIA presentation applies to their work situation. To my mind these offer the best and most concise presentations aimed at medical transcriptionists to date. One added benefit is that, because these slide shows have voiceovers by Ms. Olson, transcriptionists who are blind can use these tutorials as easily as anyone else.

Another major undertaking at MTIA is the development of its “Billing Methods Principles” program. Following a year in which news headlines were filled with items about Medicare fraud, corporate corruption at a variety of HMOs, and a surgeon who left his patient on the operating table while he ran out to deposit his paycheck at the bank, MTIA’s board is hoping to raise the bar on ethical procedures with regard to transcription billing practices.

Their initiative is long overdue. For years, frustrated MTSOs have struggled to overcome “apples to oranges” comparisons when bidding on contracts. Often, competitors were using so many different definitions of a line that it was impossible to compete on a level playing field. Nor was it easy for a hospital to verify the accuracy of an MTSO’s billing. I’m sure we would all breathe a collective sigh of relief if medical transcription was spared the kind of negative publicity that resulted from fraudulent billing practices in other areas of the healthcare industry.

Even though MTIA’s Board of Directors understands that it has no “policing power” over transcription firms that do not belong to the association, there is a strong desire to develop a set of standards which indicate that an MTSO is honest and ethical in its billing practices. The board hopes that the ripple effect will be strong enough to encourage both member and nonmember transcription firms to adopt its new BMP standards. While adherence to MTIA’s billing methods principles will never carry the same clout as, say, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it will give business owners additional validation when wooing potential clients and trying to prove that they deserve to be considered for a contract.

MTIA’s annual conference (to be held in San Antonio from April 9-12, 2003) will be offering workshops on a wide variety of topics ranging from employment law, mentoring, and HIPAA, to back-end speech recognition, marketing strategies, and offshore transcription. In addition to sessions about keyboard expanders, debt collection, and pricing strategies, one can expect a great deal of discussion about how the current economic climate will impact the industry (not to mention methods of compensating transcriptionists). A special Small Business Workshop is scheduled for Saturday, April 12. For more information about this conference, visit the association’s website at

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