The Meaningful Use Train is Simply Moving Too Fast

The Meaningful Use Train is Simply Moving Too FastAs 2014 draws closer and the realities of meaningful use Stage 2 set in, many stakeholders are experiencing an increasing and justifiable level of anxiety about the consequences of a program that is advancing too rapidly. Following on the heels of the letter from a group of senators to the secretary of HHS that suggested a “pause” in the meaningful use program, there has been a recent avalanche of pleadings for a delay of Stage 2. These have come from such venerable groups as the AMA and AHA, MGMA, AAFP, HIMSS (the Healthcare IT industry organization), and CHIME (College of Healthcare Information Management Executives), all of which represent sizeable and varied constituencies.

The proposals offer a range of suggestions, and their solutions vary in scope and complexity, but the message is clear, consistent, and undeniable: the meaningful use train is simply moving too fast, and the future success of the program depends on an application of the brakes.

Recommendations include variations on the following:

  • Delay the start of Stage 2.
  • Expand the period for Stage 2 compliance (attestation) by up to a year.
  • Suspend the penalties, at least for those physicians who have successfully attested to Stage 1.
  • Add some needed flexibility by relaxing the “all or nothing” requirements for demonstrating meaningful use.
  • Extend the schedule so that physicians have 3 years at each stage before moving to the next.

Some lay the blame on the EHR vendors, citing lack of preparedness. To some extent they are correct—the certification website reveals that only 15 complete ambulatory EHRs from 12 different vendors have been certified for 2014 and Stage 2 so far—that’s just 3% of the 472 EHRs that were available to physicians in Stage 1. While some physicians will be left without a certified EHR in 2014, it is likely that the remaining major vendors will manage to get their EHRs certified by the end of the year. The fact remains, however, that more time before deployment can only improve the (sorely lacking) usability of the final products. One only has to look at the low average KLAS scores—now in the mid-70s—to appreciate the effects of rushed software development and implementation. Without a relaxing of the timeline, many physicians will be left with EHRs that are certified, but unusable.

The EHR Incentive Program is suffering, and its long-term success is at stake. A full 17% of the physicians who attested for the first year of Stage 1 failed to attest for the second incentive payment. (See “Alarming Fact” EMR Straight Talk post.) They simply could not sustain the use of their certified EHR—with which they were already familiar—for a full year of compliance with the complex rules of meaningful use—with which they were also already familiar. Unless we stop and evaluate why this is happening and make the necessary adjustments, the dropout rate is guaranteed to rise with Stage 2.

We have to stop and assess where we are trying to go in light of where we are now. Stage 3 is hurtling toward the final proposal without the benefit of any experience in Stage 2. The measure of the program’s success cannot continue to be the number of dollars paid in incentives, but should rather be providers’ satisfaction with the EHRs that they have been encouraged to adopt.

 

Physicians Spooked by Failure Stories—EHR Adoption Suffers

Physicians Spooked by Failure StoriesA significant portion of the physician market has still not adopted an EHR, despite the lure of government incentives and the fear of the penalties looming on the horizon. The stock prices of most publicly traded ambulatory EHR companies are down sharply, as sales are lower and earnings projections have not been met throughout the industry. How can this be, when the EHR incentive program has successfully increased EHR adoption and was expected to be such a boon to EHR vendors?

I know why, and it is not—as commonly thought—because the initial EHR-adoption rush fostered by the incentives has ended. Rather, it is because of rampant physician dissatisfaction that has reached a more-than-palpable level. I have noticed a dramatic change in the tenor of conversations with physicians, most recently at professional society conferences, where physicians who have not yet purchased an EHR are frozen in their tracks. They are worried by the horror stories they hear from colleagues—even from those who have succeeded at meaningful use—because many of those physicians continue to experience major workflow disruptions and significant productivity losses from which they see no potential to rebound. Recent surveys point to the number of physicians looking to replace their EHRs, and based on my company’s experience in the replacement market, that number is growing. A recent article summarized the findings of a large study on EHR satisfaction and presented an insightful analysis of the potential reasons for these disappointing results.

This heightened level of frustration has resulted from frantic, insufficiently researched EHR purchase decisions by physicians and rushed, inadequate implementations conducted by resource-strapped vendors. Massive EHR failures are exactly what I predicted in an EMR Straight Talk post on the unintended consequences of the EHR incentive program in February 2010:

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. . . . 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.

So, what can physicians do to avoid falling victim to EHR failure, and to instead reap the benefits of successful EHR adoption—government incentives and practice productivity? I have written extensively about the importance of physicians doing thorough and objective reference checking—that advice is as valid now as when I first wrote about it, and perhaps is even more critical today. For guidance on how to conduct a thorough and fair evaluation of an EHR, read EMR Selection: How to Uncover the Truth or 100% EHR Success – A Clinical Approach.

The Future of Meaningful Use

The Future of Meaningful Use
This week, I came upon two blog posts that I thought were interesting in light of my last EMR Straight Talk post, which suggested that EHR adoption was being driven to the tipping point by the meaningful use incentives. Increasing numbers of physicians—many of whom were initially motivated by the government’s incentives—are beginning to question the real value of complying with the program’s ever-more-demanding requirements. Whether or not meaningful use thrives as the program progresses will ultimately be determined by the physician market, but sentiment is clearly mounting that too much is being demanded.

In a recent post on the venerable HIStalk blog, Dr. Jayne reminds physicians of why they went into medicine, and she challenges the government to justify new requirements by “providing concrete evidence that jumping through the hoops you’re holding in front of us will actually help patients in a truly meaningful way.” Analyzing the trade-off between the incentives and productivity, she worries about not only the impact on physician income, but also the impact on the number of patients who can receive care. I particularly appreciated her conclusion that what we should be seeking is “evidence-based Meaningful Use.”

An editorial published on the AMA’s American Medical News website, titled “Meaningful Use’s Stage 2: A Recipe for Failure,” highlights the AMA’s concerns about the Proposed Rule, concluding that the requirements are simply “too demanding” and will turn physicians into cynics, rather than participants in the EHR program.

EHR Adoption: The Tipping Point Has Been Reached

EHR Adoption: The Tipping Point Has Been Reached
Regardless of your feelings about the particular pros and cons associated with meaningful use—and you know that I have not been shy about expressing my opinions in that regard—it is impossible to deny the EHR Incentive Program’s positive impact on the implementation of healthcare IT. Meaningful Use has brought us to the tipping point, where EHRs are perceived as a necessity rather than an option for a successful medical practice. The enduring impact of ARRA is that it pushed the EHRs across the chasm, changing the profile of the EHR user from innovative, tech-savvy physician to mainstream physician.

We have reached the point where a critical mass has adopted EHRs, and paper charts are no longer acceptable. Practices that are not digital will find it hard to attract new physicians. Referrals will be affected as primary care physicians will prefer to deal with specialists in the community with whom they can share clinical data electronically, rather than bear the unnecessary costs incurred by the alternatives of faxing, printing, or mailing. These benefits can only be accomplished via an EHR, a fact reinforced by Stage 2’s increased emphasis on interoperability.

I still maintain that the decision to purchase an EHR should not be driven by potential government incentives but rather by the value delivered to a practice—improved patient care and service, productivity/efficiency gains, and cost savings. In fact, I would argue that participation in the meaningful use program is optional—but clearly, EHR adoption no longer is.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use Delayed to 2014: What’s It Really About?

HHS has made it official—Stage 2 of meaningful use will be pushed back to 2014. The announcement by HHS Secretary Sebelius came as no surprise, following as it did the recommendation made by the HIT Policy Committee and the endorsement by ONC head Farzad Mostashari. The change only affects providers whose first incentive payment year is 2011, since they are the only providers who would be subject to Stage 2 regulations in 2013 had the delay not been implemented—everyone was already entitled to 2 years of meaningful use at Stage 1.

What I find interesting about all the hoopla that has accompanied the announcement is the spin the government put on the decision. According to the press release from HHS, “To encourage faster adoption, the Secretary announced that HHS intends to allow doctors and hospitals to adopt health IT this year, without meeting the new standards until 2014. Doctors who act quickly can also qualify for incentive payments in 2011 as well as 2012.”

Isn’t it a bit late for a provider to decide to adopt health IT this year? In reality, this announcement is too last-minute to change any adoption-related behavior or to accelerate EHR adoption. The announcement continued, “Perhaps most importantly, we want to provide an added incentive for providers attesting to meaningful use in 2011.” Apparently, the goal is to accelerate attestation rather than adoption—to encourage physicians who were already using certified EHR technology in a “meaningful way” to attest and to collect an incentive payment this year, instead of holding off attesting until 2012. This would create a potential PR benefit for the incentive program, which currently boasts nearly 115,000 registered providers, but reports that only 10,155 (9%), have successfully attested.

The benefit of the schedule delay accrues only to the early adopters, who now can earn 3 years of incentives under the less stringent requirements of Stage 1 (only, however, if they are willing to forego their 2011 Medicare ePrescribing bonuses—not a worthwhile trade-off for high-revenue physicians with large Medicare volumes). In its statement, HHS acknowledged the pushback from providers regarding how challenging even the Stage 1 requirements are. Perhaps, it would truly spur program participation and EHR adoption if all providers—not just the early adopters—were entitled to 3 years of meaningful use under Stage 1 rules. Also, if CMS has so little confidence that physicians will succeed at Stage 2, shouldn’t it reconsider how much it plans to raise the bar?

HIEs and Information Sharing: Physicians Feel the Pressure

The exchange of clinical data is one of the three pillars of the EHR incentives program, and the legislation was intended to serve as a stimulus (pun intended!) for the creation of health information exchanges (HIEs) by including significant funding earmarked for their establishment. The stage 1 meaningful use requirements provide further support by requiring physicians to take a first step towards information sharing. EHR adoption was expected to be the impetus for the development and flourishing of HIEs.

HIE and Information Sharing - Physicians Feel the Pressure

It appears that it may be just the opposite—interest in HIEs may be driving adoption of EHRs, rather than the other way around. Growth in the HIE arena is coming from private HIEs—those sponsored by health care systems to connect their own providers and facilitate the effective sharing of clinical information about their mutual patients. The growth in private HIEs is far outstripping the growth in community HIEs, according to KLAS, and physicians are facing new and stepped-up pressures to participate.

It is no longer just the carrot of the meaningful use incentives at play. The following are just two examples that have recently been brought to my attention where sticks are being used to “encourage” physician participation in information sharing. The University Physicians Network (UPN) at NYU is making participation in its information-sharing network a requirement for membership in the UPN, without which physicians do not have access to the group’s favorably negotiated reimbursement rates. A similar physician group in Massachusetts is making membership in its network a prerequisite for patient referrals.

I’m interested in hearing from readers about the development of HIEs and other information-sharing networks in your markets, and the carrots and/or sticks associated with participation.

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!