EHR Vendors on Meaningful Use: Enough is Enough!

EHR Vendors on Meaningful Use: Enough is Enough!Physicians, professional societies, and EHR vendors are now aligned against the complexity and pace of the meaningful use program. In my last two EMR Straight Talk posts, I shared my concerns about the future of the meaningful use program. My letter to Farzad Mostashari relayed the rampant dissatisfaction expressed by physicians about the program’s complexity, the government’s unrealistic expectations, and the impact on physician productivity. In my last post, Physicians Are Crying “Uncle!”, I discussed how physicians and the professional societies that represent them are demanding that the runaway meaningful use train be slowed. Of paramount concern to physicians is the fact that the EHR usability they crave is being sacrificed in the pursuit of certification.

EHR vendors collectively expressed their concerns in a comment letter from the HIMSS EHRA (Electronic Health Record Association) to the HIT Policy Committee about the initial proposal for Stage 3, and their message was in synch with that of the physicians and their societies. The vendors focused on the government’s interference with their ability to innovate, and they expressed their frustration over being unable to creatively address the needs and demands of physicians for new capabilities:

The needs of such experienced and often sophisticated [physician] users will best be met by market innovation, while extensive and detailed standardized requirements dictated by the federal government are not only unnecessary but may actually interfere with the pace and direction of needed innovations.

Vendors advocate, as I do, for the government to limit its focus to overarching issues like ensuring interoperability, and they argue against the government simply piling on more new measures. The opportunity to innovate is being thwarted by government programs that force vendors to devote all available resources to an ongoing chase after continually changing certification requirements.

Rarely do we see such close alignment between physicians and vendors on any matter. If CMS and ONC continue plowing ahead, ignoring the pleas of these major stakeholders, history will deem them to have been woefully negligent stewards of a program that started out with such laudable goals.

Physicians Cry “Uncle” Over Meaningful Use

Physicians Cry 'Uncle' over Meaningful UseThe increasingly unrealistic demands of meaningful use are leading to a groundswell of resistance. While 96,000 physicians have demonstrated meaningful use and earned EHR incentives, the majority did so while complaining about the negative impact that the Stage 1 “minimal” set of requirements had on their practice workflows. (See the results of a physician survey and read physicians’ comments in my last EMR Straight Talk post.) As Stage 2 approaches, those who have previewed the increasingly complex and demanding requirements are consumed by trepidation. Many are already considering abandoning meaningful use after they collect their $30,000 for Stage 1. Despite the fact that no one has yet had experience with the Stage 2 requirements, the Stage 3 proposal from the HIT Policy Committee is already out for public comment. Physicians and the professional organizations that represent them—already close to the breaking point—are crying “Uncle!”

The following is only a partial list of organizations that have commented: the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Practice, College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, American College of Physicians, and the American Hospital Association. You can read their comments by googling the organization name and “Stage 3 comments” or “Letter to Mostashari.”

Although they phrase it in slightly different ways, all of these organizations are pleading with the powers that be to slow down what is perceived as a runaway train. Their comments center around several problems: lack of EHR usability, unrealistic and excessively complex requirements, the undue speed with which they are being imposed, and a lack of evidence of the program’s success. Physicians see the program as a massive data collection and reporting project with no proven quality improvement outcomes attached to it. Unless the government pays heed to the concerns and recommendations being voiced, the EHR incentive program is doomed to failure. Physicians will simply toss in the towel.

The following is a description of the most common sentiments expressed in the letters and formal comments:

  • Stage 3 should not even be considered until the experience of Stages 1 and 2 can be evaluated to see what was actually accomplished and what the cost is to physicians. Many are calling for an independent assessment of the program. It is not sufficient to merely gloat about how successful the successful meaningful users were—an analysis must be conducted to investigate why other physicians were either not successful or chose not to even attempt to achieve meaningful use.
  • In addition, Stage 3 should not occur until at least 3 years after Stage 2, giving physicians and vendors sufficient time to move forward.
  • EHR usability is identified as a major issue in every set of comments. EHR de-installs are increasing in number as physicians abandon legacy systems. The impact of a lack of usability is compounded when physicians attempt to use an already challenging system to meet an overwhelmingly challenging set of requirements. When workflow is negatively affected, the costs to physicians can quickly exceed the benefits.
  • The AMA suggests that the government conduct user-satisfaction surveys—by practice type, size, and specialty—and incorporate the results into the certification requirements going forward.
  • Meaningful use remains a primary-care program that, despite the addition of a few specialist-focused measures, does not adequately recognize specialists’ unique workflows. They resent being asked to report on measures that have minimal, if any, value to their practices.
  • As the requirements become increasingly complex, it may be time to modify the “all or nothing” approach, and reward physicians for reasonable levels of success. Penalties should be eliminated, or at a minimum, significantly delayed.

Don’t sit back and wait for the Stage 3 rules to be finalized. Express your opinions either by writing to your professional organization or directly to Dr. Farzad Mostashari. It is critical to keep up the pressure on the decision makers.

Dear Farzad Mostashari, M.D.:

I am writing to express my deep concern about the future of the EHR incentive program. I am alarmed to see that the program is plagued by rampant dissatisfaction among physicians. My fear is that at your level of involvement—as the very passionate but national leader at the top of the program—you may be insulated from what physicians in the trenches are saying. As lofty and admirable as the goals identified in the initial legislation are, I worry that the regulations are evolving in a way that will lead to the program’s undoing.

You were recently quoted as wanting physicians to “really embrace meaningful use as not just one more thing that they’re doing. . .now that the financial barriers [to EHR adoption] have largely been removed.” However, for the program to accomplish its long-term goals, it is critical that physicians find it meaningful for reasons beyond the incentives. Financial incentives alone cannot sustain meaningful use—particularly as they diminish sharply over the next few years. One would expect that physicians’ initial objections to the meaningful use requirements would soften a bit as they cash their $18,000 EHR incentive checks. But the results of a recent survey show the opposite. Physicians are angry—and if their anger is tempered at all, it is only by the fact that they are receiving significant reimbursement for their Stage 1 efforts.

The voice of the ambulatory physician is not being heard. To understand what is really on the minds of front-line physicians, I commissioned a reputable, independent survey firm to investigate. 684 physicians responded to an open-ended question regarding their perceptions about meaningful use. The physicians’ comments are disheartening, and must be viewed as a wake-up call to ONC, CMS, and the advisory committees to rethink where the program is heading.

I urge you to read the comments yourself—they are presented uncensored, exactly as submitted. The vehement tone does not bode well for the future of the program. The tables below summarize the prevailing sentiments. First, the comments were categorized according to the messages conveyed. The results speak for themselves.

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult Letter

  • Nearly one third of the physicians cited wasted time and unnecessary work, with an additional 11% mentioning unrealistic expectations and extreme difficulty. This was based on their experience in Stage 1—the increased complexity of Stage 2 will cause these numbers to increase.
  • 12 physicians described the requirements as “hoops” through which they are being required to jump.

To quantify the qualitative data, a relative rating was assigned to each comment using a scale of 1 to 5 (from very negative to very positive).

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult Letter

  • Only 10% offered positive responses, and most of those cited the financial compensation as the reason.
  • 82% provided negative comments, the majority of which used terms similar to those summarized in the first table above.
  • A common complaint was the perceived disconnect between entering data and improving care and outcomes.
  • Specialists commented on the lack of relevance to their practices.
  • Responders felt that the requirements were created without sufficient input from practicing physicians.

Meaningful use has overstepped its intended mission. Exploding complexity, along with a corresponding lack of physician support, will result in the failure of the program. I fear that this downward spiral will be accelerated by the increased complexity of Stage 2 and what is being envisioned for Stage 3. Private practice physicians see this program very differently than academic and informatics-driven physicians do. The average physicians are drowning in the details and feel that their ability to practice is being hampered, rather than enhanced. They will likely abandon what they perceive to be a distracting, box-checking exercise after Stage 1, once they have earned the first—and “easiest”—$30,000.

All is not lost—there is a path toward success. The requirements must be simplified! Focusing on the three initial goals as stated in ARRA—ePrescribing, quality reporting, and interoperability—rather than presenting a complex maze of 23 separate measures on which physicians have to report, would go a long way toward making meaningful use meaningful to physicians.

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult Letter

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult LetterMy last blog clearly touched a nerve, as evidenced by the number of comments (14 in 5 days) and their spirited tone. Clearly—and we agree on this—the consult letter is a key part of patient care. The issue is how to get useful information efficiently transferred from the specialist to the primary-care physician without compromising the nuanced content and without reducing the patient encounter to a series of data points—the fear voiced by many of those who commented.

The question at the heart of this matter is what constitutes a consult letter in today’s medical practice and what it should be in the future. Currently, it may be a well-worded letter that ideally is concise and to the point; however, at the other end of the spectrum, an EHR-generated exam note is increasingly serving as the consult letter. My previous blog was really an indictment of the templated notes that more and more physicians are sending in lieu of consult letters. These are often bloated, undecipherable multipage notes that physicians find useless in communicating or identifying the impression and care plan. (This is the fundamental objection expressed in the comments from Drs. Dugger, Franc, Werner, Raulston, Kuhl, and others.)

The new Summary of Care document—a creation of the meaningful use program—replaces the EHR-generated exam note. While its emphasis is on transmitting discrete data, there is nothing that precludes physicians from incorporating narratives that convey the desired nuance. The Summary of Care can accommodate a long list of data, but it does not have to be a “data dump”—data that the sending physician feels is not relevant can be omitted. What physicians typically find most valuable in the summary is a limited set of data—diagnosis, medications, procedures, lab test results, and immunizations, along with a care plan. Descriptive text can be inserted/appended if the physician feels it would add value.

The value of the Summary of Care format is its simplicity, consistency, and data-rich content, which together enable the receiving physician to easily identify the information that is important to him or her (typically, the impression and care plan), and to incorporate that information into the patient’s chart. The data is subsequently available to the physician and can be retrieved and/or reported as needed. This stands in stark contrast to the templated exam note that currently functions as a consult letter.

Designed correctly, the Summary of Care will serve as a new and improved consult letter, delivering system-wide efficiencies while preserving the personal “art of diagnosis” (to quote Christian Wertenbaker’s comment). Nothing prevents a physician who crafts well-constructed consult letters from continuing to send them along with the Summary of Care. But it is my prediction that as EHR software continues to evolve and to develop more content-rich Summaries of Care, fewer and fewer physicians will find it necessary to supplement them in this manner. And given how overburdened and harried so many doctors already are, that will be a good thing.

The End of the Consult Letter as We Know It

The End of the Consult Letter as We Know ItThe end is in sight for the consult letter as we know it today. This has the potential to be a significant benefit delivered by meaningful use standards—physicians will get the clinical information they want and need from other physicians, and they will get it faster and more efficiently. Gone will be the days of lengthy, unstructured notes sent by fax or mail from one provider to another.

In today’s world, specialists report to referring physicians (i.e., primary-care providers) via a dictated consult letter or transcribed exam notes. These tend to be text heavy and contain no discrete or importable data. Others send EHR-generated narratives—lengthy notes that most physicians find difficult to read, if not useless. Finding the impression and care plan buried in massive amounts of verbiage is frequently a frustrating and time-consuming process. Meaningful use addresses this challenge by requiring a discrete data-rich summary of care for transitions from provider to provider. A menu measure in Stage 1, these summaries become a core measure in Stage 2, with more robust and structured content and the requirement that at least some of them be transmitted electronically.

The required Summary of Care provides better-quality information to the receiving provider and is created with less manual effort by the sending physician. The receiving EHR assimilates all of the data, presenting it in a cogent manner. The Summary of Care will contain structured data and a concise, accessible impression and care plan that tells the referring physician exactly what he/she needs to know. The receiving physician will filter the data as desired and the data can then be incorporated into the patient’s chart in his/her EHR, since all certified EHRs will use standard vocabularies.

Ease and speed of communication, along with cost reduction, are significant benefits, too. The Summary of Care can be transmitted as quickly as the data is entered into the patient’s chart. An automated batch process sends the summaries from the specialist’s EHR directly to the PCP’s, eliminating the cost of printing, faxing, or mailing letters. Meaningful use Stage 2 provides for the exchange either directly from provider to provider via secure e-mail (the “Direct” messaging protocol) or through Health Information Exchanges (HIEs).

Meaningful use will mark an end to the transmission of consult letters devoid of discrete data and to the exchange of hard to read exam notes. The impact on physician and practice productivity is undeniable.

Physicians Benefit from CMS’ Harmonization of Program Rules

Physicians Benefit from CMS’ Harmonization of Program Rules width=Kudos to CMS for making good on its promise to align quality measure reporting and incentives across the various government programs with which physicians must contend. With the publication last week of the 2013 Medicare Professional Fee Schedule final rule, CMS delivered on the harmonization promised in the Meaningful Use Stage 2 final rule in August.

This is very good news for physicians. Without the compromises that CMS made in both rules, physicians would be confronted with the challenge of trying to participate in a minimum of 3 government programs that involve quality measure reporting—ePrescribing under MIPPA, meaningful use under ARRA, and PQRS—each with its own set of intricate requirements, timetables, populations on which to report, reporting mechanisms, and incentive/penalty schedules. Not only would this be incredibly complicated, but it could give rise to incongruous situations in which a physician might, for example, successfully ePrescribe as part of demonstrating meaningful use, and yet still be subject to a penalty for inadequately ePrescribing under MIPPA.

Among the key areas of alignment are the following:

  • Reporting for PQRS using the EHR reporting option (as opposed to claims or registry reporting) will satisfy the clinical-quality-measure-reporting component of meaningful use. PQRS EHR-based measures will be aligned with the measures available for reporting under the EHR incentive program.
  • Meaningful use clinical-quality-measure reporting via PQRS will only be on Medicare patients, while all other meaningful use measures will continue to apply to all patients, regardless of payer.
  • PQRS reporting will be done using the CEHRT (Certified EHR Technology) that is required for meaningful use, eliminating the current requirement to use a separately certified “PQRS-Qualified” system.
  • Successful ePrescribing under meaningful use will protect physicians from ePrescribing penalties under MIPPA.

The government programs remain complex—but there is no question that aligning them as the recent rules do will decrease the reporting burden on physicians, spare related administrative costs, and eliminate the costs associated with duplicate EHR certification requirements. Valuable physician resources will be better allocated to providing the quality of care these programs seek to measure.

Audit Risk: EHR Coding, Cloning, and Templated Notes

Audit Risk: EHR Coding, Cloning, and Templated NotesPhysicians beware: CMS recently expanded RAC audits (Recovery Audit Contractors) to include office visit (E&M) claims, with the goal of identifying inflated coding and aggressively pursuing fraud and abuse. A recent New York Times article, “Medicare Bills Rise as Records Turn Electronic”, alleged that “EHRs may be contributing to higher Medicare costs because they make it easier to bill more for services.” This is a natural outgrowth of the pre-meaningful use origins of many EHRs—they were typically designed to create a clinical note that would maximize reimbursement. The point-and-click, templated notes of many EHRs will also be subject to intense scrutiny—because the notes often include copied and pasted text and omit the nuanced information that is critical to truly meaningful documentation.

In a sternly worded letter to hospital and medical association executives on September 24, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder warned that they “will not tolerate health care fraud” and will take steps “to ensure payment accuracy.” They expressed serious concerns that some providers are misusing EHRs to increase reimbursement by cloning medical record documentation and by upcoding visits.

This new focus on auditing E&M coding was spurred by the findings of a report by the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) issued in May 2012, “Coding Trends of Medicare Evaluation and Management Services.” Over the last 10 years, physicians have increased their billing of higher-level E&M codes and reduced their billing of lower-level codes. Therefore, the OIG recommended that CMS have its contractors review physicians’ billings for E&M services and that they review—for appropriate action—those physicians who bill higher-level codes.

One of Medicare’s administrative contractors, (National Government Services), recently announced that it will not accept cloned documentation. “Cloned documentation will be considered misrepresentation of the medical necessity requirement for coverage of services due to the lack of specific individual information for each unique patient. Identification of this type of documentation will lead to denial of services for lack of medical necessity and the recoupment of all overpayments.”

These audits pose a significant risk since auditors are paid based on the amount they recover from providers.