Over the last several years, I've had quite a few discussions about the book publishing business with my friend, author Moriah Jovan. In fact, she's the reason I bought an e-book reader (kicking and screaming and swearing I wouldn't like it as much as real books) several years ago. Now, I spend more time scouring the various sources for e-books than I ever did browsing in a bookstore. I love digital book readers and haven't bought a paper version fiction book for over a year now.
In case you aren't up on the book publishing business and missed Borders' bankruptcy filing and shuttering of over 200 stores, the traditional book publishing establishment is going through the pangs of change; i.e., the change from paper to digital.
The change from analog to digital forced a change in the music industry and how it does business. Likewise, the change from paper to digital is forcing a change in the publishing industry. The change from analog to digital has also forced a change in the medical transcription industry and continues to change as medical records move to fully digitized medical records.
I was reading a long (too long) discussion online about the digital revolution in the book business and this got me thinking about similarities in the medical transcription industry.
Medical transcription as a niche market
One point the authors make that resonated with me was a discussion about niche markets. Before the invention of electricity and electric lighting, candlemakers were in the lighting business. We all enjoy candles but most of us don't use them as our primary source of lighting. Candles are now used primarily for decoration and scent. Candlemaking is no longer the major industry it was and it is no longer in the lighting business; it is in the niche market of candlemaking. Candlemaking is still a business and it still generates significant revenue, but not nearly as much as it did when it was in the lighting business. That means fewer companies making candles and fewer employees making candles and fewer people selling candles.
I could go on and on about how major industries have become niche markets, but I think you get the idea.
Likewise, medical transcription is becoming a niche market. As some industry sectors are fighting for preservation of the narrative record, larger forces are fighting for a point of care digital record and its numerous advantages over traditional documentation methods. Even if the narrative record fight is won, what will most likely to retained as traditional transcription will be a niche market. The consultant will no longer dictate a past history, medical history, medication list, allergy list, surgical history, etc., when it's already readily available and easily accessed in the digital record. The discharge summary will no longer summarize all that, plus all the labs and studies that were done during the admission because they're already readily available in the digital record. The narrative portion of the record will shrink significantly. I'm not sure what that niche market will look like, but I know it will be a fraction of what the medical transcription market has been in the past. Like the candlemaking business, that will mean fewer companies doing transcription and fewer employees doing transcription.
Medical transcription is not dictation/transcription
In the 1930s, automobile travel began to cut into the railroad's passenger travel market, but freighting was really the meat and potatoes of the rail system. The development of the interstate highway system dealt a blow to the railroad industry, followed by the extra punch of air travel and freighting in the 1950s and 60s. Add onerous federal regulations and stagnant labor unions and the railroad industry was on its knees. Railroad industry leaders thought they were in the railroad business, but the railroad industry wasn't in the railroad business – it was in the transportation business. The inability to grasp the concept nearly killed the industry. In 1939, there were 132 class I (freight) railroads. Today, because of mergers, bankruptcies and major changes in regulatory classification, there are only 7.
Except for the labor unions, that sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
The railroads were ultimately saved by your tax dollars, in the form of Amtrak and ConRail. ConRail subsequently privatized and the railroads were deregulated, making it possible for railroads to operate free of government regulations that had made them unprofitable.
(You can read all this at Wikipedia – I'm just summarizing for you).
In spite of the similarities between the two, don't look for a government bailout of the medical transcription industry. The US government, in fact, is aggressively pushing digital records. If it supports any industry, it will be the electronic records industry. (Conspiracy theorists, start your engines!)
Which brings me to the publishing business. The blog I was reading noted that, similar to the railroad industry, the publishing industry thought it was in the business of publishing. With the development of digital books, it's becoming apparent that the publishing industry is actually in the business of distributing printed information and entertainment (thanks for the refinement, Moriah Jovan!). As self-publishing becomes easier and more acceptable, the necessity for a publishing company that distributes books (paper or digital) is further eroded. The publishing industry is trying to preserve its place by attempting to suppress self publication and digital book distribution, a move that just about everyone in that industry can see is a last-gasp effort that isn't going to work. Amazon (and now Barnes and Noble) are staying viable by embracing digital books, as well as self publication. In 5 or 10 years, will anyone care that an author's work has never gone through the gatekeeper of a publisher? Probably not.
If you want a blueprint for what's happening and what will continue to happen in the medical transcription industry, just take a look at the music and publishing industries. The music industry has survived, but it's not the same as it was before. Apple iTunes has become the #1 seller of music in the US. I'm not sure the traditional publishing industry will survive; at the very least, it will be radically transformed and the people who work in that industry will have to carve themselves a new place in the niche markets that spin off the publishing industry.
Like my transition to digital books, doctors are kicking and screaming and swearing they won't like it, but they are adapting digital records and they are becoming accustomed to the advantages. The technology is improving and will continue to improve; at the same time, it will become less expensive. The users are becoming more adept at the technology. I think we can count on the trend to continue. Likewise, transcriptionists are kicking and screaming and swearing – speech recognition editing, overseas competition, low pay rates – can we expect any of this to change? I don't think so. I think that as the medical transcription industry responds to changes it's undergoing, some medical transcriptionists and transcription companies will carve out a place in developing niche markets, others will move to related healthcare fields where some or all of their skills can be applied, and a lot will leave the industry altogether. The speed at which technology moves makes it nearly impossible to see where the medical transcription industry may end up. Right now, it seems that smaller companies are losing out, as they don't have the financing to support the technology requirements – or even rent them. I'm hearing from more and more independent transcriptionists that even their long-term accounts have stopped dictating entirely, in favor of an EMR (regardless of well it works for them). I think the larger companies have already started making the move from the business of transcribing dictation to the business of providing technology to document healthcare records. In the meantime, the Department of Labor keeps reporting that medical transcription is a good career option (I think it's time for an update on that one), the medical transcription schools continue to do a booming business, churning out people who soon discover that they cannot get a job or, if they do, they struggle to make minimum wage – if they finish the program at all. I think more and more transcriptionists are looking at – or have already implemented – other options because they cannot tolerate the financial instability of the shrinking market and deteriorating pay rates. You have to ask yourself – in 5 or 10 years, will anyone care that doctors used to dictate and someone transcribed the dictation?
So what is the medical transcription business? Traditionally, we've thought of it as the business of taking recorded dictation and turning it into typewritten records. The upheaval in the market is redefining how we think of the business of medical transcription. I'm not sure what the medical transcription business is really – I'm only certain that it's no longer taking recorded dictation and turning it into typewritten records.
The light at the end of the tunnel may, unfortunately, be a train.
I'm soliciting comments: what do you think the business of medical transcription is, really?