EMR Straight Talk Centennial Blog—It’s Still About Productivity

This is my 100th EMR Straight Talk post, and a lot has changed in the EHR world since the blog’s inception—but some things have not. Productivity is still the name of the game in EHRs, especially for specialists.

There is no question that the government incentives have stimulated interest in EHR adoption, but according to a recent physician survey, that is not the primary reason that providers are looking to implement one. “Quality and efficiency” ranked higher than the EHR incentives as the goal of EHR implementation, according to this report by CapSite—a healthcare technology research company. Heightened interest in efficiency is not surprising, given that in another study (by MGMA), physicians identify rising operating costs as a tremendous challenge.

Although the above data was not cut by specialty, I know from my experience in the field that these issues are magnified in specialty practices. MGMA found that of all physicians, orthopaedists face the greatest challenge in successfully implementing EHR systems. Ophthalmologists have such distinct needs that the American Academy of Ophthalmology took the time to publish an article defining the specific characteristics that an ophthalmology EHR must have to be valuable in their members’ practices.

When you read through the list of requirements, they all tie into the impact on productivity and efficiency—factors critical to both of these specialties given their particularly high patient volumes. The implications for EHR selection are significant, and have not changed since I wrote my first EMR Straight Talk post.

Thank you for reading and commenting!

Physician EHR Productivity: Vital to Meet Spike in Demand for Care

Half of the physician group practices recently surveyed expected to buy an EHR system within the next 2 years. In the rush to purchase, however, it is imperative that physicians take the time to carefully assess how each of the EHRs they are considering will impact their productivity. Productivity has always been a major concern in EHR adoption, but demographics and financial factors now conspire to make it increasingly critical. Physicians can no longer afford even the slightest decrease in productivity. Consider the following projections that affect specialists:

  • The demand for joint replacement surgery will soon outstrip the supply of orthopaedic surgeons available to provide it, according to studies presented to AAOS. This is partly the result of an aging population with increasing rates of obesity and arthritis, but the growing demand will also come from a younger population. A full 50% of joint replacements will be sought by people under 65—the physically active baby boomer generation with a high level of physical activity. Not only will first-time joint replacements increase astronomically (rising 673% to 3.48 million knee replacements, and 174% to 572,000 hip replacements by 2030), but the demand for revision joint replacements, (i.e., repair or replacement of artificial joints) will also increase—doubling by 2015.
  • The situation is similar for ophthalmologists. Higher life expectancy will create a demand for 30 million cataract surgeries by 2020. Combined with the downward pressure on Medicare reimbursement rates that will lead some ophthalmologists to limit their practices to medical ophthalmology, the result will be a greater caseload for the remaining surgeons—but these physicians will need a high-volume, highly productive practice to remain financially viable.
  • Dermatologists will see a two- to three-fold increase in skin cancer patients as the population ages, and the demands for their medical services will grow rapidly. Not only will dermatologists be called upon to perform more surgical procedures in their offices, but increased awareness will lead to a higher demand for screening and preventive-care services.

Physician productivity will be critical in the office as well as the operating room, since the number of surgeries performed is directly proportional to the number of office visits conducted. A physician-focused, specialist-oriented, efficient EHR will be key to a physician’s ability to meet the increased demands, satisfy patient needs, and run a financially successful practice. Given the above statistics, it would be fiscally and socially irresponsible to implement an EHR that negatively impacts physician productivity. Now, more than ever, productivity is king.

EHR: Great Expectations?

It’s so interesting how the same statistics can be interpreted through different prisms to arrive at opposite conclusions. In a past post, I wrote about the recent comprehensive MGMA study that explored the EHR experiences reported by over 4,500 professionals, representing 120,000 providers, focusing on the effect of EHR implementation on providers’ operating costs and productivity.

In this month’s issue of MGMA Connexion, David Gans, MGMA vice president, discusses the results of this study. He points out that EHR benefits to providers increase as they increase training and optimize their EHRs—“optimize” being defined as allocating sufficient time for physicians and staff to become familiar with the system—not a surprising finding. The tone of the article leads the reader to view as good news the fact that 37.7% of the respondents who claimed that they had optimized their EHRs reported productivity gains.

This statistic lends itself to a glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty analysis. Shouldn’t we look at this result with considerable concern since it means that 63.3% of optimized EHR users are not experiencing improved productivity? As the shaded area of this chart illustrates, if we did nothing to change these results, the vast majority of EHR users would never realize productivity benefits.

This is not a condemnation of EHRs, but rather a caution that physicians must evaluate their EHR options carefully to ensure that they purchase a system that is designed for their particular specialty and workflow—one that they can implement easily and optimize quickly, and that delivers increased productivity from the outset.

EHRs and Productivity Loss: How Can This Be Acceptable?

The purpose of automation is to increase efficiency and productivity. Every industry that has undergone the transformation from paper to digital has realized these benefits immediately . . . every industry, that is, except the EHR industry. Why is this acceptable?

Even the AMA acknowledges this failure—and yet seems to accept it. Toward the end of its newly released, and otherwise very helpful, video on how to select an EHR is the test question: “What is the ‘best practice’ in terms of the number of patient visits to schedule during the first week of operation with your new EHR?”

Why does the AMA think that the correct answer “A”?:  “Reduce the number of patient visits by up to 50% for the first week to allow you and your staff to learn how to use your new EHR.”

Why isn’t it “D”?:  “Your new EHR was carefully selected to fit into your practice smoothly and seamlessly. There should be no impact on patient volume that first week.”

Why does the typical EHR implementation follow the bottom line of the graph below, when it should look like the top one? Dr. Jacqueline Fincher’s testimony at last week’s HIT Policy Committee’s hearing on “Experience from the Field” is representative of the all-too-common experience.

Dr. Fincher reported an “absolute requirement to drop patient volume by half for the first three months [due to] an exponential learning curve,” and that she and her partners “have never gone back to the previous volume of patients,” even after 5 years of EHR use.

Some argue that the medical business is different from other industries like banking and shipping. That is very true. The type of data collected is different, and the level of employee responsible for inputting much of the data is also very different. In most industries, it is the lower-level, less costly employees (such as bank tellers and UPS truck drivers) who input data, while in medical practices, it’s actually the CEOs (i.e., the physicians) who do it. This makes productivity all the more critical for an EHR. According to the recent MGMA study on EHR adoption, fear of productivity loss is the primary barrier to EHR adoption—a concern justified by reports from experienced users, as illustrated below.

For the EHR industry to evolve as necessary for widespread adoption to become a reality, choice “A” must be rejected as totally unacceptable by physicians and the professional organizations that represent their interests. Physicians should expect more from their EHRs—they should demand that vendors deliver productivity, not merely fancy features and functionality. The truth is, they can get both, but only if they do their due diligence.

EMR Ratings: A KLAS Act

This week, KLAS released its first EMR Performance Report that organizes results according to the specialty of the rating provider. Although the publication of “Ambulatory EMR by Specialty” came on the heels of my posts last week—titled “One Size Does Not Fit All” in EMR Straight Talk and HIStalk—the timing was purely coincidental.

I want to commend Mark Wagner and Kent Gale for taking on this new approach to analyzing and reporting the data they collect. I have had numerous conversations with KLAS on this subject over the years, urging them to report by specialty for all the reasons identified in my posts, and they clearly recognize the value of this type of information. This effort by KLAS was a major undertaking, and the result represents a significant breakthrough in the way the EMR industry provides access to information.

For any specialists looking to adopt an EMR, the KLAS report “Ambulatory EMR by Specialty” is a must-read. It contains information that is vitally important to informed EMR decision-making.

The data raises some interesting questions and implications. In next week’s EMR Straight Talk, I will share some initial observations.

Preserving Physician Income in a Low-Margin Environment: EMR Strategy

A frequent concern I hear in my conversations with physicians is that they are challenged by increasingly harsh economic pressures. Healthcare reform, lower—or at best stagnant—reimbursement rates from government and private payers, and the higher proportion of lower-paying Medicare patients are reducing or capping practice revenue. At the same time, overhead costs are escalating unrelentingly, since employees still expect raises and other operating costs continue to rise. While the common perception is that physicians are not businessmen/women, they are in fact running small businesses; and now, more than ever, they need to focus on ways to maintain business viability in light of lower margins.

Physician Income Calculator

The above graph illustrates the economic challenges. Click on it to enter your own practice data and assumptions concerning anticipated growth or decline in reimbursement and expenses, and observe the effect on physician income—the green line. Given that physicians have no control over reimbursement rates, the only way to positively impact that green line is by effecting fundamental changes to practice operations—and the right EMR is critical to this end.

First, it is imperative to significantly reduce overhead—the orange line. Government programs that may, or may not, deliver short-term financial incentives do not address cost structure. What is needed is an EMR that delivers sustainable and significant reductions in the staff-to-physician ratio and more efficient management of all resources—depressing the orange line. Increasing revenue—the blue line—requires increases in physician productivity and patient volume. The challenge here is to wade through EMR marketing hype to identify the EMR that will actually shift the orange line down and the blue and green lines up.

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.