Government EHR Program: Unintended Consequences (continued)

Last week’s EMR Straight Talk, “Government EHR Program: Potentially Harmful Unintended Consequences,” seems to have struck a nerve with readers—based on the number, source, and intensity of the comments. The elevated level of concern is palpable. What I find rewarding is that blogs like EMR Straight Talk are creating a community of physicians who find support for their concerns—concerns that they might have thought were unique to themselves. Several of last week’s comments came from physicians who are not even on our mailing list, which means that their colleagues are sharing the blog, seeking to build support for their beliefs. Most of the comments were submitted by specialist physicians who are getting our message and beginning to speak up about why they do not consider the government’s EHR program relevant for their practices.

Those commenting identified several additional unintended consequences and voiced other concerns, including:

  • Dissatisfaction with templates and the utility of the notes they generate;
  • Failure of the government program to consider the needs of providers;
  • Effect of traditional EHRs on physician productivity;
  • Failure of physician organizations to speak out on behalf of their constituents; and
  • Difficulty of finding the right EHR for a practice.

An interesting comment came from Paul Roemer, who directed concerned readers to his post on HealthsystemCIO.com, in which he suggests that the “meaningful use” dates will be pushed back. He maintains: “Washington created a $40 billion lottery and they are having trouble finding anyone able to purchase tickets.” His contention is that very few providers will be ready or able to take advantage of the incentives, including those who already have implemented a traditional, point-and-click EHR.

What do you think the government should do with its program that is clearly meeting significant and vocal resistance—particularly among specialists and other high-volume physicians? Submit your comments below, and let’s keep the conversation going.

Government EHR Program: Potentially Harmful Unintended Consequences

I am really intrigued by the latest creation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last week, HHS announced a contract to set up a group of experts to identify and attempt to fix any “undesirable” and “potentially harmful unintended consequences” that result from the stimulus legislation’s EHR incentives. According to the announcement, which was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website: “Historical experience, as well as mounting evidence of unexpected problems, demands that we consider potential downsides.”

My curiosity is piqued! What are the unexpected consequences the government anticipates, and why is HHS so concerned? Awaiting the report from the panel of experts, I started thinking—and it didn’t take me long to create a list of my own.

My top three unintended consequences are the following: (If you’d like to suggest other potential unanticipated consequences—positive or negative—please submit a comment at the bottom of this page.)

  • There will be more EHR failures than successes, particularly among high-performance specialists.
  • “Certification” will stifle innovation.
  • Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market among high-performance physicians.

More EHR Failures:

After an initial peak in implementations, long-term EHR adoption will slow—particularly among high-performance specialists—and the current failure rate will escalate. Many factors will contribute to this: (1) Some physicians will rush into EHR purchases without conducting proper due diligence. (2) Products that were overly complex and did not work in busy specialists’ practices in the past will surely not succeed now, particularly since these same products must now be used in an even more structured and demanding way. (3) Sorely needed implementation and training will be provided by inexperienced and rushed implementation teams, further reducing the likelihood of success with providers, many of whom are less technologically savvy than the early adopters. (4) Where there was never a convincing economic justification in the past, the addition of data-collection requirements will further lessen the economic feasibility of traditional, point-and-click EHRs. (5) Physicians will try to transfer data entry tasks to scribes and other lower-cost employees (assuming that the regulations allow CPOE to be done by other than the ordering provider), but this strategy will not make economic sense, either, since the additional costs will outweigh the government incentives. The result? The high failure rate will leave physicians “holding the bag” after investing large sums of money, failing to earn the anticipated incentives, and owning a system that doesn’t meet their needs.

“Certification” will stifle innovation:

Innovation will suffer, as it did in the past when many EHR vendors devoted all their development resources to complying with the long list of CCHIT-certification requirements. Forcing all vendors seeking certification to meet the same criteria will surely sap the drive for innovation. As vendors burn through precious development resources to meet evolving government standards instead of improving their core product, they will fail to respond to the interests of their customers, i.e., the physicians. Sales and marketing will drive physicians’ choices, rather than the EHR products themselves. Large companies, which have the largest sales organizations and marketing budgets, will be successful in the short term. Smaller vendors who follow the herd instead of their entrepreneurial and innovative instincts will be driven out of the market.

Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market:

The good news is that innovation will triumph in the end. Alternative solutions—like the hybrid EMR—will prevail as high-performance physicians find success with products that focus on their needs and enhance their productivity. It will take 4 to 5 years for physicians who have experienced government-program EHR failures to reapproach the market after amortizing their losses. These physicians will seek products that focus on clinical-workflow efficiency and physician productivity. The long-term winners in the EHR market will be those vendors who resist the temptation to chase the “windfall” stemming from the stimulus legislation, and instead focus on improving their products to deliver these benefits.

Please share your thoughts on other possible unintended consequences by submitting a comment below.

Meaningful Use Rule: Initial Comments Set the Tone

It’s been a relatively quiet week—the initial reactions to the proposed rules on “meaningful use” and standards are out, and the flood of commentary has temporarily subsided. The work of reviewing and analyzing the rules in depth has just begun, as staff at various industry organizations pore over the 700 pages of government verbiage at a more detailed level to evaluate how their respective stakeholders will be affected. We are actively participating in such conversations, and a number of leading organizations—MGMA among them—have reached out to us to talk about the implications for physicians. I hope that they will take our input into account as they formulate their recommendations.

Although it is anticipated that the vast majority of public comments will not be submitted until the final days of the 60-day comment period—i.e., in early and mid-March—individual physicians and others have begun formally registering their opinions. Not surprisingly, some of the initial comments reflect anger about the length and complexity of the rules themselves. Urging the government to keep the requirements simple was a common theme among comments from physicians and administrators:

“If the goal is to get the majority of clinics using EHRs and to provide incentive funds to help the economy, then the first step of incentive payments must be easy to obtain.” —Craig Brauer

“The ‘meaningful use’ criteria should provide incentives to encourage the implementation of the most essential features of an EHR, but it is imperative that the ‘meaningful use’ criteria not become a Christmas tree of features that becomes hugely expensive and unworkable. The ‘meaningful use’ criteria must not make perfect the enemy of the good.” —Robert Rauner, M.D.

Others talked about the limitations of traditional EHR products and issues of usability:

“I am concerned that the current emphasis, promoting adoption of existing EHRs, with little focus on the need to make EHRs better, will ultimately slow innovation. . . . Usability is the Achilles heel of current EHRs. An EHR may meet all of the functionality requirements and yet be so burdensome to use that patient care is made more difficult. . . . At this point we don’t need more EHRs, we need better EHRs.” —Christine Sinsky, M.D.

Objections to CPOE and the effect on physician productivity were also common:

“The process of entering orders is often inefficient and time consuming, with multiple screens, drop-down boxes, scrolls, and clicks. Assigning these clerical tasks to physicians results in a redirecting of limited physician resources away from clinical work, replacing direct patient care with low value added clerical work.” —Christine Sinsky, M.D.

To view these and other comments, or to submit your own recommendations, go to regulations.gov.

On a lighter note, a few days ago, I read a parody in HIStalk (a venerable healthcare IT blog) called “Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure: Choose Your EMR Soul Mate Carefully.” It compared purchasing an EMR to getting married, and the analogy is a good one. Mr. HIStalk, the blog’s author, postulated that “the same handful of wrong reasons that convince people to marry unwisely also convince them to buy EMRs that will make them unhappy.” If you are interested in reading more, go to HIStalk.

RFP: Relevant For Productivity?

Identifying the right EHR for a practice has always been difficult—there are so many choices; there is no objective information about competing products; you have to rely on vendor-identified references; and there is an abundance of misinformation about what is (or is not) required by the government. To sort out this information, consultants and practices often rely on the well-known acronym RFP—Request for Proposal—even though the RFP process is flawed.

The big problem with RFPs is that they emphasize the wrong criteria. They yield information about product features and functionality, but not usability and impact on productivity. It’s like buying a car with a full set of luxury options, only to realize later that it tops out at 40 miles per hour. What you didn’t consider is “usability.” EHR failure is tied directly to the impact on physician productivity, yet not one of the last 10 RFPs I’ve received—each containing 100–200 questions—has even mentioned productivity. In fact, by their very nature, RFPs cannot evaluate the characteristics most critical to successful adoption because there is no way to objectively measure things like productivity, efficiency, and usability in a written format. This is why practices using RFPs still end up as part of the 50% EHR-adoption failure statistics.

RFPs provide detailed information about product features and functionality; however, here’s what you can’t learn from even the most comprehensive RFP:

  • How long it takes a physician to use the features to accomplish routine clinical tasks—for example, write a prescription, review a chart, or send a message.
  • What the net effect on productivity will be—during implementation phase and ongoing.
  • What the likelihood is of receiving government incentives—i.e., your ability to use the EHR as required.
  • How great the failure rate/number of dissatisfied clients is—from de-installations to clients no longer using the software—particularly in your specialty and practice size.
  • What percentage of customers is not using the EHR fully—e.g., still dictating exam notes and transcribing.

To obtain this critical information, practices must take control of the competitive analysis process. Do your own benchmarking of the number of clicks and time required to accomplish a few simple tasks with each of the EHRs under consideration. To estimate the value of the impact on productivity, input the time difference per exam into the productivity calculator. The insights gathered regarding the comparative merits of EHR products will be infinitely more valuable than the information received in response to a 20-page RFP.

Instead of relying solely on an RFP, use a stopwatch to evaluate and compare EHRs. If you would like a stopwatch, just e-mail your name and address to stopwatch@srssoft.com and I will send you a complimentary one.

The Elephant in the Room

The search for the perfect EMR involves an extensive list of criteria related to features and functions, cost, hardware requirements, certification, references—and since February, the potential to obtain government incentive money. Search committees are assembled, consultants are engaged, RFPs are solicited, presentations are made, and references are checked. But there is a big elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring—physician productivity.

The effects of productivity are enormous. Changes in physician productivity dramatically and directly impact the practice’s bottom line. You can calculate the cost for yourself using the Productivity Calculator discussed in a prior blog. Physician productivity has broader societal impacts as well. Decreased productivity means fewer patients seen in the face of higher demand for care by aging baby boomers and the massive numbers of newly insured patients under proposed health care reform legislation. This is further compounded by the shortage of physicians.

Why is no one looking at productivity? Why aren’t physicians and medical societies insisting that productivity information be made available and be the focus of the EMR selection process? Why do RFPs—typically written by consultants—contain no questions about productivity? CCHIT certification has never included any evaluation of productivity, and neither does the government’s “meaningful use” matrix. Even at the recent MGMA Annual Conference there was no mention of productivity in a session on implementing EHR technology. A reasonable explanation might be that objective information about comparative productivity is not available. However, this problem could be remedied by EMR Reform—but that proposal is meeting with resistance within the industry.

Some of the answers to the questions above are less surprising than others. I believe that vendors are afraid of what comparative benchmarking would reveal about their products’ performance under close scrutiny of productivity. It is not in the vendors’ interest to yield control of the EMR evaluation process—not when scripted presentations permit skirting the productivity issue entirely. Consultants don’t feel confident that they have the tools to effectively compare productivity, particularly if vendors are not supportive of productivity measurement. What confounds me, however, is the lack of concern being expressed by physicians and their representative professional groups. I can only assume that it is due to the fear-based marketing efforts to which they are being subjected. Physicians are being told that they must buy an EMR because the government requires it and because everyone else will buy one—neither of which is true. What physicians should be fearful of is the loss of productivity that they will suffer if they do not consider productivity as a primary factor in the EMR selection process.

At next week’s HIT Policy Committee meeting, defining “meaningful use” for specialists will be a primary agenda item. We will advocate that meeting the government’s goals for widespread EHR adoption requires that physician productivity—the elephant in the room—be addressed.

Planning for the Flood

I spent the last few days attending the annual conference of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) in Denver, where there was a lot of talk about the financial challenges practices are facing and about the government’s EHR incentives.

Robert Tennant, MGMA’s Senior Policy Advisor, acknowledged that few groups will be eligible for the incentives when the government’s program begins in 2011. According to William Jessee, M.D., President and CEO, the vast majority of practices do not currently have any type of EHR, and despite being pressured by vendors that the time to purchase and implement one is now, physicians are reluctant to commit the resources necessary to do so. He attributed this to the financial effects of the recession—an unprecedented negative growth in practice revenue that is resulting in decisions to postpone capital investments. Add to this the pervasive confusion surrounding the incentives themselves, and the forecast is for wholesale inaction.

All of this has reinforced my belief that it is more important than ever for physicians to make good business decisions, and to do everything they can to enhance—or at a minimum, preserve—productivity. Not only will practices be faced with the financial pressures and declining reimbursements cited by the MGMA, but additional factors will make productivity critical. The impending flood of aging baby-boomers and the newly insured (through healthcare reform legislation)—coupled with a growing physician shortage—will swamp the healthcare system. This increased demand for care creates an opportunity, but only physicians who can leverage EHR technology to boost their productivity will really keep their heads above water.

An Open Letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius

We are very encouraged that the Voice of the Physician Petition has been acknowledged at the highest levels of government. After HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius received the petition that SRS sent to her—and simultaneously hand delivered to the HIT Policy Committee—Secretary Sebelius asked Dr. Blumenthal to respond to me. As head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Dr. Blumenthal chairs the HIT Policy Committee and, together with Secretary Sebelius, will accept or modify the recommendations on “meaningful use” and EHR certification that come from that committee and from CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). In the interest of continuing this conversation, I am extending the following invitation to Secretary Sebelius, as I already have to Dr. Blumenthal:

Dear Secretary Sebelius:

I received Dr. Blumenthal’s letter and was glad to hear that you appreciate the input provided in the Voice of the Physician Petition. The ability of the EHR incentives to successfully encourage widespread adoption of EHRs is inextricably linked to the belief by physicians that EHR technology is of benefit to them, as well as to all the other stakeholders in the healthcare delivery system.

I would like to arrange a brief meeting with you to discuss these very important issues in person. As the CEO of SRS, with 12 years of experience listening to and working with front-line physicians, I can offer you some valuable insights into what community-based physicians are looking for and how they perceive the legislation—likely a different perspective than that being presented by committee members.

SRSsoft was recently named to the Inc. 5000 list of most rapidly growing companies, and was identified as one of the top 100 healthcare companies. Our success and growth is directly attributable to the fact that our EMR development is driven entirely by the needs of private-practice physicians.

As the representative of thousands of physicians who want their voices heard—SRS clients and non-clients alike—I would be happy to come to Washington to talk with you. I am confident that you would find the conversation valuable.