In The Battle To Digitize Paperwork, Paper Is Winning

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 06/03/2012

Walk through the modern new document depository in Medley, and one thing becomes clear: Paper can be a hard habit to break.

By Douglas Hanks

May 2, 2012

Walk through the modern new document depository in Medley, and one thing becomes clear: Paper can be a hard habit to break.

Opened 16 months ago, the facility owned by an Atlanta company employs a team dedicated to digitizing records and storing them in secure computerized archives that can scan millions of files in a moment. But that part of the business occupies a tiny portion of Recall’s Medley operation, which remains dominated by old-fashioned paperwork.  The warehouse now contains roughly 10 million files and 500 million pieces of paper. They fill 90 rows of shelves 30 feet tall, running the length of two football fields. The warehouse purchased 193,000 labels to set up the shelving system.  “Everyone wants to push digital,’’ said Ruben Garcia, Recall’s top Florida executive. “I’ve been in the business 15 years. Paper doesn’t go away.”

Documents — and the digitizing of them — have been big news in recent years. President Barack Obama’s stimulus program included $30 billion for medical offices to convert their records to digital data. America’s foreclosure crisis took a pause in 2011 thanks to disputes over questionable paperwork by banks as they sought to repossess homes — the so-called “robo-signing” scandal.

And as environmentalists push a “green” approach to corporate paperwork, Apple, Google and countless tech start-ups see massive profits in off-site digital storage — the so-called “cloud.”

The Recall facility off 115th Avenue stands at the crossroads of this evolution, offering a full menu of digital options: high-speed “Optical Character Recognition” scanning, a patented web-based inventory-management tool for recalling the computerized records, and servers scattered across the country designed to protect against calamities like fire, hurricanes and even terrorist attacks.

Before entering the facility, Recall employees must press the top of their hands to a scanner that identifies them by the vein patterns in their upper wrists. Then they walk past another secure room with glass walls, where four employees unload files from battered cardboard boxes and scan them one-by-one into a digital archive.

The warehouse stands ready to destroy paper records that clients no longer want to keep. But parting with paper can be hard to do..

In the loading bay, a red sign reading “DESTROY” hangs over a cluster of about 100 boxes. Those documents will be shredded. Another 2,000 cardboard boxes stretch from near the discard area to the far end of the warehouse, stacked five or six high.

“This all came in Friday,’’ Garcia explained on a recent Monday morning. “We need to put it up today.”

That’s roughly a 20-to-1 ratio of new paper records to destroyed ones. “It keeps coming,’’ said Garcia, who got his start climbing document racks as a temporary hire in another warehouse in the 1990s. “Who is going to stop it?”

Recall runs 300 document warehouses across the country. Medical records occupy most of the shelves in Medley, with banking records a distance second, Garcia said.

A January study by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 5 percent of the eligible doctors received federal money for digitizing records, though about a third had registered for the incentive program. Hospitals seem to be farther along the digital evolution: a third had received the federal money, and two-thirds had applied for it.