What Are Specialists Faced With Today? Uncertainty and Change!

Ryan Newsome

Ryan Newsome

Vice President of Software Engineering at SRS Health
Prior to joining SRS almost 10 years ago, Ryan started his career as a software engineer for Map Info/Pitney Bowes. Throughout the years Ryan has been an expert in all things web, interoperability, and in agile leadership. He currently oversees all of product engineering at SRS and has led SRS’ transition to an Agile/Scrum Development Methodology. In his free time, you can find Ryan either skiing, cycling or spending time with his family. Fun Fact: Ryan played Division 1 Soccer at Sienna where he attended on a scholarship. Goal!
Ryan Newsome

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Changes AheadRecent Nobel-recipient Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 1963—a time of growing social upheaval reflected in the song’s lyrics, which called for listeners to acknowledge and embrace the transformations taking place around them. As I listened to this song over the past weekend, I couldn’t help but draw a correlation to the radical transformations we are currently experiencing in our industry. The past several years have epitomized the term “change” as the nation has taken big steps to transform the delivery of healthcare.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, was one of the catalysts for this transformation by requiring the “meaningful use” of digital systems in healthcare. Since then, change has been the only constant that we have been able to count on. Government regulations, payment models, and product innovations have continued to evolve in disruptive ways—both good and bad. As soon as we become comfortable with one wave of change, another wave is already threatening to drench us to the bone (for us, the next big one is MACRA & MIPS).

So, coming off nearly a decade of constant uncertainty, what’s next? Well, you guessed it—more change! Starting in 2017 we will have new policy leaders in place who have promised to significantly restructure the incumbent’s healthcare programs. President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Tom Price as the head of HHS may be indicative of the changes on the horizon. Price, a 6-term congressman from the Atlanta, Georgia, area, was formerly an orthopedic surgeon. Will a specialist at the helm help make government programs, that have typically been focused on primary and in-patient care, more meaningful for specialists?

Time will tell, but the one thing that is certain is that, as the song says, the wheel is still in spin. In other words, the times they are still a-changin’.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use: The Public Has Spoken

CMS asked for comments on its Proposed Rule for Stage 2 Meaningful Use, and it got them—1,131 of them, to be exact. While the comments that have drawn media attention are those from major stakeholder organizations, the vast majority of comments were submitted by individuals—and CMS is obligated to read and consider each and every one of them as they formulate the Final Rule.

 

I thought it would be interesting to see whether the comments from those in the trenches—those whose everyday lives are impacted by the meaningful use regulations—are in line with the sentiments expressed by groups like the AMA, AHA, MGMA, EHRA, etc. In a review of the first 25% of the comments by individuals, (over 250 comments), a consensus clearly evolved around a few major points, and the results remained fairly consistent as we read. The graph above illustrates the prevailing sentiments.

  • By far, the predominant concern is that the proposed requirements are far too demanding, i.e., the bar is being set too high. An overwhelming 82 of the comments identified the sheer number of measures and components, challenging thresholds, the cost of compliance, and overly aggressive timetables—even in light of the delay to 2014—as being unrealistic.
  • On a similar note, another 14 addressed the complexity of the requirements, describing them as difficult to understand, ambiguous, and overly complicated. When combined with the above, approximately 40% of the 250 comments reviewed maintained that the Stage 2 requirements are simply too demanding.
  • As anticipated, there was a resounding concern (56 comments) about holding physicians responsible for actions by any third parties over whom they have no real control. Most comments referred to the requirement that patients view or download their charts and communicate to the physician by secure e-mail, but some asked that providers be insulated from any failure by vendors to meet the requirements or the client upgrade schedules.
  • The limited relevance for specialists remains an issue in Stage 2, as the program is still viewed as primary-care focused. There were 23 comments that addressed the paucity of meaningful use measures and clinical quality measures that are relevant to specialists, and some went so far as to claim that trying to meet requirements that are geared towards primary care could actually distract specialists from their own priorities and be detrimental to the quality of care they would be able to deliver.
  • Some comments addressed the penalties and suggested that the rules provide for a broader range of exemptions and more leeway. The suggestion that the first year of Stage 2 only require 90 days of reporting—which was suggested for other reasons as well—was supported by providers concerned with the penalties.
  • In response to a plea from CMS that people report what they like in the proposal, in addition to what they don’t, some commenters expressed general support for the Stage 2 recommendations, and a small number argued that the bar wasn’t raised high enough. Some—likely specialists—applauded the change in exclusions for reporting of vital signs; several approved of ensuring patient access to their clinical information; and there was support for the proposed harmonization of clinical quality measure reporting under the various government programs (meaningful use and PQRS).

Perhaps what is most interesting about the comments is the emotion and passion behind many of them—whether expressing favorable or unfavorable opinions. If you would like to browse through the public comments yourself, go to www.regulations.gov and enter “CMS-2012-0022” in the search bar.

EHRs: AAO Keeps Its Eye on the Ball

I’ve written frequently about the unique needs of specialists and how these have been overlooked by the government and by EHR vendors. Since many ophthalmologists are heading off this week to the AAO (American Academy of Ophthalmology) Annual Meeting in Orlando, I thought it appropriate to comment on the proactive advocacy and advisory role that this particular professional society has adopted on behalf of its members, and to encourage other academies to step up their efforts similarly.

EHRs: AAO Keeps Its Eye on the BallAAO has been quite active on the meaningful use front. This week’s HIT Policy Committee’s Meaningful Use Workgroup meeting focused on how make meaningful use more meaningful for specialists in Stage 3. AAO was one of only two specialty societies represented in the public comments at the end of the meeting—the Academy’s representative pleaded that measures irrelevant to ophthalmology be replaced with those that would add value for these specialists, and offered the Academy’s assistance to accomplish this.

In addition to providing its members with otherwise unavailable, ophthalmology-specific direction on how to meet meaningful use, AAO has also offered much-needed guidance regarding the selection of an appropriate EHR for ophthalmologists—meaningful use aside. Recognizing that their unique specialty-specific workflow and data needs are not effectively addressed by most EHRs—because of the typical primary-care focus—AAO charged its Medical Information Technology Committee with the identification of a set of ophthalmology-relevant EHR specifications. A group of authors led by Michael Chiang, M.D., identified a set of features and attributes that ophthalmologists would find particularly valuable, and published their recommendations in an article titled “Special Requirements for Electronic Health Record Systems in Ophthalmology.”

While features and functionality are important, feedback from colleagues who actually use the EHRs is even more critical. The advice that AAO has given its members on how to make the most out of site visits will serve all physicians well, regardless of their specialty, and I am therefore sharing it with you below. It is reprinted from the publication “Electronic Medical Records: A Guide to EMR Selection, Implementation, and Incentives.”

ASK COLLEAGUES THE RIGHT QUESTIONS:

  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?

EHRs are here to stay, and will play an increasingly important role in medical practices. A major investment, EHRs can dramatically impact practice operations and productivity—positively or negatively. It is my hope that, like AAO, the medical academies will use their clout and speak out more aggressively to protect the interests of their members.

Stage 2 Clinical Quality Measures—More Is Not Better

Serious time and effort is being devoted to the development of the clinical quality measure (CQM) reporting requirement for Stage 2 of meaningful use, with the intention of accelerating progress toward the program’s end goals. Sadly, however, the old joke keeps coming to mind about an airplane pilot who announces to his passengers that he has good news and bad news. The bad news is that he has no idea where they are, but the good news is that they are making great time!

Moving forward in Stage 2 without first addressing the fundamental flaws and omissions that plague Stage 1 is not the right approach. CMS has acknowledged that the CQM reporting requirement in Stage 1 is no more than that—a reporting requirement meant to get physicians comfortable with the process of reporting. CMS is under no illusions that the data collected will be meaningful as a measure of the level or quality of care being provided. Many physicians will be reporting on problems for which they are not treating the patients, which means that measure numerators will be zero (or very low) and that duplicate data will be submitted by different physicians for the same patients for the same conditions, which will result in an underestimation of the true care being delivered.

The Stage 2 recommendations for CQM reporting that the HIT Policy Committee has forwarded to CMS significantly expand on the Stage 1 measures in an attempt to address a broader set of factors that affect quality, as well as to be relevant to a wider set of physicians, including specialists. These are important goals, but premature. The model that was created—shown in this graphic—requires the addition of an extensive “library” of measures for each of the 6 menu “domains”.

Adding a large number of measures will be challenging on a practical front—it will involve development and testing by specialty societies and NQF, implementation by EHR vendors, training for providers, etc.—but more importantly, it does not address the basic issues related to the value of the data submitted. The problems identified above remain, no target thresholds exist, and no meaningful baseline data will be established to monitor progress over time. This is clearly a case where more is not better.

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 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.