Most EHRs Disappoint Specialists

The vast majority of EHRs are outright failing the specialists. Is this news? Surely not to those physicians suffering EHR implementation disasters, but thanks to KLAS, we now have hard data to confirm the anecdotal evidence. It is provided in the recent KLAS report, and eloquently described by Ken Terry in his recent article in Information Week. His title, however, “EHR’s Aren’t Specialist-Friendly Enough,” underestimates the seriousness of the problem. And the problem will only get worse as more specialists rush to purchase EHRs under the pressure of impending meaningful use deadlines.

In an industry where the EHR satisfaction scores by specialty range from a paltry high of only 7.6 (on a scale of 10) for internal medicine and family practice to an embarrassing low of 5.8 for oncologists and ophthalmologists, most specialists rate their EHRs in the barely passing range between 6.2 and 6.8.


Source: KLAS as reprinted in HIStalk

Let’s look at these scores as grades—the best EHRs are only earning a C (76%); orthopedists are trying to make a go of EHRs that are squeaking by with a D (65%); and some specialists are saddled with EHRs that are simply flunking out (58%).

And these scores are averages. Assuming a normal distribution of responses (see example of bell curve for ophthalmology, below), there are many physicians who rate their EHRs considerably lower than the average—giving scores of 48%, 38%, or even lower. (Readers who are physicians know what happens to students who get a 38% on an organic chemistry final exam: dreams of medical school quickly disappear as these students are weeded out of the candidate pool!)

Of course, just as there are some specialists who rate their EHRs below the average, there are also some who score theirs at the high end of the bell curve (in the orange section). Oh, and guess where a vendor is going to take a prospective customer for a site visit?

So, what’s a specialist to do to increase the chance of EHR success? Play it safe and go with a name brand, generic EHR? Clearly not! That strategy is anything but safe. The legacy EHRs are all built to support the needs of primary-care physicians—it is no surprise that internists and family practitioners are less dissatisfied with their EHRs than their specialist colleagues are.

Here are some tips:

  • Start with the KLAS report, “Ambulatory EMR by Specialty Study 2012: Finding the Fit”, and identify those EHRs that have high ratings in your specialty.
  • Make sure that these vendors have a large network of providers in your specialty.
  • Perform comprehensive due diligence, calling physicians that you select.
  • Beware of vendor-selected site visits—these physicians should not be expected to be representative of the majority experience.

You can’t cheat when it comes to selecting an EHR. After all, it may be the EHR that gets the bad grade, but it’s you who is going to have to pay.

100% EHR Success – A Clinical Approach

Last week’s EMR Straight Talk post, “Are EHRs Being Oversold,” hit a nerve, judging by the number of readers and the volume and intensity of comments submitted by physicians. Sadly, for every one of the physicians who took the time to write, there are scores of others enduring similar experiences. The following excerpts from their comments are reflective of their frustrations:

  • We are a year into [EHR] implementation and it has been horrible and costly. What little efficiencies gained have been lost to a decrease in productivity.
  • I now require a scribe to maintain the [same] patient flow that was seen four years ago we began using the system.
  • The trouble with most EMRs is the horrible user interfaces that are designed by committees who have no concept of ease of use for ophthalmologists.
  • The programs are user unfriendly in the extreme, cumbersome and inflexible. The learning curve is seriously long and even when mastered takes a terrific amount of time away from the patient.
  • The joy-killer was encountering the endless barriers to putting my own ideas to work.
  • Training is lengthy, expensive, and markedly disruptive in an office.

Every one of these stories breaks my heart as a staunch EHR proponent—particularly since the situations could have been easily avoided.

The Root of the Problem

The problem lies in the EHR selection process. When it comes to dispensing medications, for example, no physician prescribes without knowing the success rate for that particular drug for that particular type of patient and problem being addressed. Yet, typically, physicians do not make EHR purchase decisions in the same way that they make clinical decisions—using empirical evidence and data to predict outcomes.

I’d wager that for each of the disillusioned physicians above, the EHR selection process was nearly identical:

  1. The group chose 5 to 7 vendors for consideration;
  2. Each vendor demoed their product in front of an EHR selection committee whose task was to narrow down the field to 2 or 3 finalists;
  3. The finalists performed one or more demos to a wider group of physicians and staff;
  4. The vendors each provided 2 or 3 practices as references, with specific contact names;
  5. One or two physicians and staff members spent a day visiting one reference site for each of the vendor finalists; and
  6. They selected an EHR.

Why does such an exhaustive and time-consuming selection process so often lead to failed EHR implementations?

Preventing an EHR Failure in Your Practice

To prevent an EHR failure in your practice, the flawed selection process must be altered. The first thing to understand is that the rosy experience of one or two handpicked vendor references will not guarantee a similar experience for you and your colleagues. If a vendor has sold its EHR to 100 practices and has as few as 5 successful implementations, you will be referred to one of these 5 practices. A visit to 1 or 2 of these 5 successful practices may leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling and the expectation that, because they were successful, your success is virtually assured. In this case, however, your real probability of success would only be 5%.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

So how do you quickly eliminate vendors with lackluster success records before you and your staff waste hours watching slick sales demonstrations of sexy software with “must-have” features? Separating the wheat from the chaff is simple—just ask all your initial set of EHR vendors for lots of references. If a vendor cannot produce at least 2 references for each year they have been in business, run the other way. Do not accept any excuses for being unable to provide you with the number of references that you seek. (A common excuse is that the vendor wishes to protect the privacy of its clients.) If they had lots of references, they would give them to you in a heartbeat—happy customers are always willing to show their successes to others.

Many of the initial vendors chosen will not be able to produce a satisfactory number of references. This should narrow down the number left for you to consider, and it will save a tremendous amount of valuable physician and staff time.

Statistically Significant Reference Checking

At this point, your list of vendors will likely include just the one or two that have provided you with a meaningful reference list. You may have to accept the bias created by the fact that the references are carefully handpicked by the vendor(s), but it is imperative that you do not limit your inquiries to the specific physicians identified by the vendor. Typically, these are the practice administrator and one or two physicians who had spearheaded the EHR purchase for the practice; as a matter of pride, they are more likely to paint a rosy picture of the EHR than to acknowledge its shortcomings. The only way to avoid this trap is to speak with other physicians at the reference practices. This is easy to do. When you get the reference list from an EHR vendor, ask them to include the practice websites, then randomly choose physicians to call from the physicians’ bio pages. These physician-to-physician calls should be short (only 10 minutes each) and you should ask specific questions about cost, efficiency, and number of patients seen.

  1. When did you install your EMR?
  2. How long was the installation/implementation process?
  3. How would you describe the installation/implementation process?
  4. Was the system as user friendly as the demonstration by the salesperson?
  5. How many patients per hour/per day did you (and your partners) see before the installation/implementation of your EMR?
  6. How many did you see after?
  7. Approximately how much more time do you devote to entering exam data into your EMR now compared to how you documented exams before you began using an EMR?
  8. How do you like the quality of the EMR-generated exam notes?
  9. Have you had to hire scribes to enter data for you? If so, how many and what is their annual cost?
  10. Has your EMR completely eliminated the paper charts in your practice?
  11. Given your practice’s experience with your EMR, would you recommend it to a similar practice?

How much of your time should this type of random reference checking take? Not much! Ten 10-minute calls (less than 2 hours of time) to randomly chosen physicians will yield more valuable data on your chances of success than having a slew of vendors demo their products to your doctors and staff for hours on end. Only after having conducted the due diligence described above will you be able to derive real value from spending your time seeing demos—because you will only be seeing demos of the one or two EHRs that you now know are likely to deliver success.

EHR Success: What is the Reality?

With the constant barrage of meaningful use success stories in the media—number of providers enrolled, dollars of incentives earned, and case studies about practices that have already received their money—it pains me to see that the experience on the ground quite often does not reflect this reality. Although they are only anecdotal, let me share two recent personal stories that I fear are representative of all too common EHR implementation failures.

I recently visited my dermatologist, whose practice purchased an EHR approximately 2 years ago (not my company’s product). When I arrived, I saw to my dismay that the office looked and operated exactly as it had before they bought the EHR—there were walls of charts; no computers in or around the exam rooms; and my physician walked in grasping my paper chart in his hand, with loosely assembled documents protruding from the edges. When I asked why they were still using paper charts, I was told that “it takes a long time to switch over to computers!” No one in the office—not the front desk staff, not the clinical staff, and not my physician—could even tell me the name of the EHR they had purchased. Clearly, little—if any—progress had been made on the implementation front in the 2 years since the purchase decision, and yet they seemed to think this lack of a transition was normal. All that money invested, and no return!

A visit to my primary care physician was equally disturbing, but from another perspective. His practice had implemented an EHR (also not my company’s product), and several of the physicians were, in fact, using the software—but not happily. He complained that he was seeing fewer patients each day, as well as staying a half hour longer to catch up on his documentation. Will he earn a meaningful use incentive? Likely yes, but at what cost?

I have always maintained that government incentives should not be the motivation for adopting an EHR. Practice improvement—cost reduction, increased productivity, and better patient care—should be the driver. With the rapidly increasing demand for care and the growing shortage of physicians, the need for easily implementable, productivity-enhancing EHR technology is indisputable, and yet so many EHR implementations are still failing. How do we as an industry address this shortcoming?

EHR Usability – Let Physicians Decide

Usability has become the focus of a great deal of attention in the EHR world. The HIT Policy Committee has talked about making usability a component of meaningful use—recognizing that spending $36 billion to incentivize and support physicians to adopt EHRs means that we can no longer close our eyes to the historically high rate of EHR failures. Fears about lack of usability, and the resulting impact on productivity, have contributed to physicians’ reluctance to move forward with implementation, and EHR incentives will not sustain adoption beyond the first payments if physicians find their EHRs unusable.

To address these issues, the Committee held a day-long hearing on usability, and on June 7, NIST (National Institute for Standards and Testing) convened a workshop to discuss the state of EHR usability. Significant work is being done by NIST, as well as by academic institutions, research and trade groups, and vendors, to determine how to measure, evaluate, and improve the usability of EHRs.

I hope that those involved in the efforts to advance EHR usability will consider the following points:

  • The only people who can truly define usability are the users—i.e., physicians and other providers. Usability relates to the comfort, ergonomics, and acceptability of a particular application interface to its users. As such, it is the experiences and feedback provided by those users that must be the driving force behind any shift toward greater usability.
  • Usability can be measured, but not legislated. Because personal subjectivity will always be an important factor in each individual user’s judgment about what is ergonomic, comfortable, and generally acceptable, there will always be room for a variety of approaches. Attempts to legislate the best way will inevitably accommodate only a narrow range of users, leaving those with varying preferences and workflows without software to satisfy their usability requirements.
  • Usability must be evaluated not only from the perspective of primary care physicians, but also that of specialists. Specialists provide different types of care and have very different expectations of their EHRs. Treating specialists as an afterthought—as happened in the initial formulation of the meaningful use requirements—would be a major disservice and undermine the serious work being done to define usability.

There is a great opportunity here for the government to provide advice and education regarding EHR usability—this could go a long way to furthering successful EHR adoption. It would be a major mistake, however, for the government’s role to extend to legislating or mandating usability standards. That would sap innovation, push creative vendors out of the market, and turn EHR adoption back to where it was before the meaningful use incentives.

EMR Purchase: Caveat Emptor

Physicians practice evidence-based medicine. They base clinical decisions on evidence gained from scientific research and experience. As patients, this is the source of our confidence in their diagnoses and treatment plans for us. Unfortunately, an alarming number of physicians do not apply evidence-based decision-making to their EMR purchases. This explains the 50–80% EMR failure rate documented in the Milbank Quarterly and cited by the AMA.

Recently, I’ve spoken with several ophthalmology practices that are struggling under the weight of unsuccessful EMR implementations—many of these situations would have been averted by asking the right people the right questions at the right time—before signing the EMR contract. Let me share a few examples of how aggressive due diligence uncovers important facts:

Buyer BewareAn ophthalmology practice purchased an EMR from [Vendor 1] based on its ad stating that nearly 500 ophthalmology practices use a [Vendor 1] product. Had the physicians asked for the names of 10 ophthalmology practices of their size that use this vendor’s EMR, they would have learned—by the lack of response—that most of the 500 practices use the vendor’s practice-management system, not its EMR. Don’t fall prey to deceptive marketing.

Beware of references with vested interests. For example, a physician would never know that the reference for [Vendor 2] has an ownership interest in the vendor’s company. Not surprisingly, the reference physician described the EMR as “excellent.” It was only a subsequent blog comment from another physician in the practice that revealed that, after 3 years, she still schedules 6 fewer patients each day and has hired a skilled technician to assist her, adding $37,500 per year in costs.

Another practice made a visit to [Vendor 3’s] reference site and learned that the physicians in the practice are, in fact, using the EMR. If they had probed further and asked about staffing, however, they would have learned that instead of 8 scribes, this practice now employs 24 scribes to handle the necessary data entry—two for each ophthalmologist (instead of one before the EMR adoption), and one for each optometrist (when the optometrists had never needed any scribes at all before the EMR).

It’s equally important to randomly select physicians to call. Do not limit your conversations to those physicians hand-picked by the vendor—other physicians in the practice will always take calls from colleagues. Ask each physician how many patients he or she sees each day now as opposed to before EMR implementation. Within the same practice that purchased [Vendor 4’s] EMR, physicians using the EMR successfully are those who see only 25 patients per day, while the ones who see 60 patients daily do not use it because of its effect on their productivity.

If you apply the same due diligence and evidence-based decision-making to your EMR search that you do to treating your patients, you will have the information you need to ensure that the EMR you select will be the right EMR for your practice.

EMR References: Cast a Wider Net

Client references and site visits can be a rich source of valuable information when you’re shopping for an EMR—but only if approached critically and after conducting your own due diligence. The graph below illustrates the limitations of relying on vendor-supplied client references to make an informed EMR purchase decision.

Impact of EMR on Physician Productivity

This graph represents the effect of EMR adoption on physician productivity, given the acknowledged 50–80% failure rate of traditional EMRs—specialists being on the higher end of the range. Immediately upon adoption, physicians experience a significant reduction in the number of patients they can see, and over time, they hope to regain their productivity. Some are able to achieve their pre-EMR levels, and a small number see an increase above that level—the latter are the physicians in the orange-shaded section. These are the physicians whom vendors will identify as references and whose practices will be offered for site visits.

Every vendor will have a few good references and can take potential customers to visit a “show site” client, but this is not necessarily representative of the experience of the majority of users—the experience that you can likely expect.

If this graph instead portrayed the results of a clinical trial for a new drug, would a physician prescribe this medication based on the fact that 100 (of the 1,000) patients in the study showed positive effects? Clearly not!

Ask the vendor for—and insist on—at least 10 to 15 references of practices in your specialty and at least a few that are close in size to yours. If a vendor cannot provide this, there is reason to question whether its EMR is right for your practice. Call a physician of your choosing in the reference practice(s)—selecting at random from the group’s website is most likely to yield an objective evaluation. Don’t be fooled by one reference, one hand-picked physician, or one “show site” visit.

EMR Adoption: Why Are You Still on the Fence?

A growing number of physicians—particularly specialists—are no longer on the fence when it comes to the government’s EHR incentives. As evidenced by a recent spate of articles and blogs—one of the more compelling ones being “Is HITECH Working?: Key Physicians Will Sit on the Sidelines (At Least for Now)”—they realize that the costs outweigh the benefits. Physicians have decided that they:

  • Will not buy the type of EMR that is difficult to use and has not worked for other physicians in their specialty;
  • Will not risk the costs of a failed implementation;
  • Cannot tolerate the decrease in productivity—seeing fewer patients and generating less revenue;
  • Have established as a priority improving the quality of patient care they deliver, rather than collecting and reporting data that the government wants;
  • Cannot afford to take on unnecessary additional administrative burdens in the face of declining reimbursements;
  • Are not worried about potential penalties that will be relatively small, if they are even imposed at all; and
  • Are not interested in the government’s program, the benefits of which accrue primarily to other stakeholders, and not to their practice.
So why are these physicians, who have determined that government incentives are not relevant or achievable, still on the fence about adopting an EMR solution that will deliver measurable benefits? Staying with paper charts is not a good business strategy because there is nothing more inefficient!
  • The costs associated with the excess staff needed to manage these medical records are massive and wasteful—these positions can be eliminated or the employees can be more effectively used in revenue-generating or patient-care roles.
  • Paper charts hinder practice growth because adding physicians requires a proportional increase in support staff—medical records, billing, nurses, and medical assistants—and because physicians can’t see more patients without lengthening their work hours.
  • Slow responsiveness to primary care physicians limits referral volume.
  • Profitability is further affected by billing bottlenecks that delay revenue collection.
  • The chaos associated with trying to manage paper charts has a damaging effect on staff morale and creates rampant frustration among patients, physicians, and staff.
  • Paper charts are a malpractice nightmare—prescriptions are not consistently documented, orders are not easily tracked, and medical decisions are often made without complete clinical information.

You cannot afford to maintain the status quo.

Physicians can transform their practices without the government—there are excellent EMR solutions available, such as the hybrid EMR. It’s time to become digital. It’s time to get off the fence!