“I don’t think I’d know what to do without having Penelope. All of us in the clinical department would be lost, every staff person. support and direct services staff use it and feel comfortable with it.”
In terms of technology, things have certainly changed at The Family Conservancy since Linda Castle first joined the Kansas City organization in 1988.
Castle is now the Family Support Services Administrative Coordinator at the nonprofit organization, which serves over 50,000 people in the Kansas City area each year through its counseling services for individuals, families and victims of violence and abuse, as well as its extensive services in early education.
Thinking back to her start at the organization, Castle recalled the pre-internet technology in place at the time.
“We had a Radio Shack computer that had these huge floppy disks,” she said with a laugh. “I had one for each office and at that time I think we had five offices, and it was an experience. We manually typed up CMS-1500 forms on a typewriter and I had never done medical billing, so it was definitely a learning experience. And we went from that to an AS-400 system – the actual computer belonged to United Way of Kansas City, Missouri, and we just shared space on it, I learned how to write reports on the AS400 with IBM Query.”
Fast forward 15 years, and the organization was looking to upgrade from an Access database that had caused various connectivity issues within the network.
Impressed with the competitive pricing offered by Athena Software, Castle said the reliability of web-based software and the applications’s flexible design were also important factors in choosing Penelope for the agency.
“Penelope gave us the advantage of having a much more stable connection from all of our offices. And the versatility of Penelope was great – we could set up the data fields the way we wanted. We could set up the cart items and other user-defined fields to collect information we needed for reporting, it was very versatile,” she said.
Though Athena Software was just two years old when Castle first encountered Penelope, she said the company’s existing client base in Canada was already evidence of its stability and, in 2003, the Family Conservancy became the first users of Penelope case management software in the United States.
Athena co-founder and partner Diane Stanley-Horn provided on-site training, and Castle said staff quickly found the application easy to use.
Penelope is user-friendly
“The scheduling piece of it was very user-friendly for our scheduling department,” she recalled. “We have a centralized intake department that sets up initial appointments for all of our offices, and the way it was handled in Penelope was way more efficient than the previous system. It was more user-friendly, you could do more searches and narrow down results by criteria, which then allowed us to set the client appointments with the most appropriate provider.”
Since then, use of Penelope at the organization has expanded.
“Now our clinicians do all of their own rescheduling of appointments, they do most of the case documentation in Penelope – our clinical assessment, activity notes and progress/closing forms are setup as documents in Penelope. It has allowed the clinicians to have a hands-on experience with the electronic database, which we didn’t have originally back in 2003,” Castle said.
And, as the organization has grown, their use of Penelope has grown with it.
“When we first started in 2003, Penelope was bought and used just for outpatient mental health. And, since then, we’ve had a number of programs that have gone in and out of it that really had nothing to do with outpatient mental health whatsoever, but we’ve used it for tracking purposes for staff to keep logs of other types of participants, for documenting staff hours and for tracking types contacts or services at child care sites. And because of the flexibility to set up various cart items and types of units, it’s been very useful,” she said.
Added Castle: “Penelope has been so versatile that, any time we start new programs, we’re able to create cart items and programs in Penelope that fit the new services being offered.”
Castle said her team is also looking forward to implementing Penelope’s Collaboration Suite, which incorporates internal messaging and workflow tools into the software, including the option for front-desk staff to notify clinicians of a client’s arrival.
“We’re really fascinated with the idea of being able to notify our clinicians when their next client is here. One of our buildings has two floors, so it’s really nice to be able to electronically notify the clinician who might be on the second floor that her appointment is waiting on the first floor,” she said.
Given that the Family Conservancy was an early adopter of Penelope in the United States, Castle and her team’s needs helped shape Penelope’s content for the U.S. market.
They were among the first to use then-new billing features in Penelope such as credits, debits and adjustments, as well as the CMS-1500 forms that Family Conservancy staff used to have to type out manually on a typewriter.
The forms are used to submit claims to insurance companies in the U.S., and Penelope was developed to allow the forms to be populated automatically from the data already in the system.
World Class Support
Throughout their time using Penelope, Castle said the relationship between her staff and the Athena support team has been impeccable.
“We’ve never had any issues with tech support,” she said. “Any time we’ve had a problem, I’ve been able to call or e-mail and ask questions, and even ask questions that maybe are not typically Penelope tech support questions,” she said. “Maybe they’re something about ‘How does this part of the system work with this part of our network,’ or when we’re trying to troubleshoot a problem we have within our network, I can always call and ask ‘Is this related to Penelope or is this our network?’ and get a solid answer. So it’s been nice to be able to do that and to know that I have experts at Athena that know what they’re doing.”
Castle said she has also found Penelope to be an invaluable resource for the varied reporting needs of her organization’s funders. Castle is able to connect to Penelope data easily in the back-end to create all the custom reports she needs in Microsoft Excel using Pivot Tables.
“We have a lot of funding sources that need data pulled in different formats,” she explained. “We have government grants where I pull staff hours that I report out each month. I have a grant that I send a yearly report to where I give them a list of clients that were seen with various demographic information on it – such as, ethnicity, race, and preferred language. All of the grants seem to have different reporting periods, they don’t follow a calendar year – they might have a start date of June or October 1st each year. So all of the reports that I create are based on what the requirements are from the funder, and so I use pivot tables frequently to do that.”
She continued: “I use pivot tables every month for accounting. Currently we have three sites from which I report all charges, payments, adjustments, and debits. These reports help me prepare a spreadsheet that then goes to the agency treasurer, so our department numbers by site can be included in the agency financial records. I also use Penelope reports to reconcile our cash receipts every month. We also use the system for our self-pay statements and for medical insurance billing by creating both EDI files and CMS-1500 paper claims for submission.”
Web-based and mobile
Another innovation inconceivable in 1988 is the everyday use of mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets.
Because Penelope is web-based, it is accessible from wherever users may happen to be as long as they have an internet connection.
For the Family Conservancy, this means staff are able to take Penelope with them when they go on home visits to families in the community.
“We have a new program that serves depressed moms in their homes,” explained Castle. “Our clinicians take laptops with internet access so they can use online assessment tools with the moms. They have touch screen laptops which make it easy for the mom to fill out the assessment questions right on the laptop. Then the clinicians can connect to Penelope to enter data directly into the case file if they want.”
All of which is a long way from the floppy disks and shared computers of a quarter-century ago.
“I think it’s amazing the transition from 2003, when we had clinicians that could barely use email, to having clinicians that are actually entering case documents in Penelope and creating electronic case records,” said Castle.
“I don’t think I’d know what to do without having Penelope. All of us in the clinical department would be lost, every staff person; support and direct service staff use it and feel comfortable with it.”