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!

EHR Success: What is the Reality?

With the constant barrage of meaningful use success stories in the media—number of providers enrolled, dollars of incentives earned, and case studies about practices that have already received their money—it pains me to see that the experience on the ground quite often does not reflect this reality. Although they are only anecdotal, let me share two recent personal stories that I fear are representative of all too common EHR implementation failures.

I recently visited my dermatologist, whose practice purchased an EHR approximately 2 years ago (not my company’s product). When I arrived, I saw to my dismay that the office looked and operated exactly as it had before they bought the EHR—there were walls of charts; no computers in or around the exam rooms; and my physician walked in grasping my paper chart in his hand, with loosely assembled documents protruding from the edges. When I asked why they were still using paper charts, I was told that “it takes a long time to switch over to computers!” No one in the office—not the front desk staff, not the clinical staff, and not my physician—could even tell me the name of the EHR they had purchased. Clearly, little—if any—progress had been made on the implementation front in the 2 years since the purchase decision, and yet they seemed to think this lack of a transition was normal. All that money invested, and no return!

A visit to my primary care physician was equally disturbing, but from another perspective. His practice had implemented an EHR (also not my company’s product), and several of the physicians were, in fact, using the software—but not happily. He complained that he was seeing fewer patients each day, as well as staying a half hour longer to catch up on his documentation. Will he earn a meaningful use incentive? Likely yes, but at what cost?

I have always maintained that government incentives should not be the motivation for adopting an EHR. Practice improvement—cost reduction, increased productivity, and better patient care—should be the driver. With the rapidly increasing demand for care and the growing shortage of physicians, the need for easily implementable, productivity-enhancing EHR technology is indisputable, and yet so many EHR implementations are still failing. How do we as an industry address this shortcoming?

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.

Usability: Can Every EHR Be Above Average?

Usability is the key differentiator between the long-term success and failure of an EHR implementation. The findings of the recent MGMA study lead to the inescapable and troubling conclusion that too many physicians do not consider their EHRs “usable.” A bad EHR choice is costly for the particular physician(s) and, while it might suffice in the short term for the purpose of earning meaningful use incentives, it will do nothing in the long run to foster sustained EHR adoption. Recognizing this, the HIT Policy Committee’s Adoption and Certification Workgroup convened an 8-hour hearing last week on the subject of how to define and measure usability. Recommendations were offered that mirrored my EHR reform proposal, and various groups/studies are already working on usability testing. One such group is CCHIT, which has introduced a usability rating tool into its commercial certification (not to be confused with government-certification) process. In her testimony, Karen Bell, M.D., Chair of CCHIT, discussed the results (Chart 1) and her recommendations.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is that, to be useful to physicians, it has to look like this:

This is not meant as an indictment of CCHIT—the organization is to be commended for having taken an important first step in defining usability and creating a process for measuring it. The problem—which Karen Bell did acknowledge when challenged about it—is that if this rating scale were an accurate reflection of usability, there would be many fewer complaints about EHRs and, in my opinion, many fewer failures.

To provide physicians with the objective information that will be valuable to them in EHR purchase decisions, the ratings must be comparative and follow a normal distribution, as illustrated in Chart 2 above. Because achieving this distribution would require more aggressive usability criteria, it would distinguish those EHRs that have the greatest positive impact on productivity and cost savings from those that have a lesser, or negative, impact in these areas.

Even more important, this more challenging evaluation will create a market in which vendors are forced to compete on usability and how to better meet the needs of physicians. Physician satisfaction levels will increase. It will elevate quality across the board and raise the level of the entire EHR industry. Perhaps, as Dr. Ross Koppel testified at the Usability Hearing, if health IT were more usable, we wouldn’t even need incentives to spur EHR adoption!

MGMA Study Reveals #1 Reason Physicians Fear EHRs

The evidence is indisputable: the fear of lost productivity associated with EHR implementation is uppermost in the minds of physicians, and their fears are justified by the actual experience of the majority of EHR adopters to date. The titles of two articles about the recently released MGMA EHR survey say it all: “Survey: EHRs Often Don’t Increase Doc Productivity” (Health Data Management) and “HITECH Drives Docs to EHRs, but Cost, Productivity Issues Remain” (Healthcare IT News).

MGMA is to be commended for the size and scope of this important survey (4,588 practices representing 120,000 physicians), for the multiple ways it segmented the survey population, and for the detailed analysis of the results. One important segmentation was missing, however—that of physician specialty, or, at a minimum, of primary care versus specialist. The EHR experience of orthopaedists or ophthalmologists, who may see as many as 60 patients a day, is dramatically different from that of a family practice physician who sees 20.

Productivity was the pervasive issue. The only group that reported some productivity gains was the 16.3% self-proclaimed “optimized users” of EHRs—those who have had sufficient time following implementation to master the EHR. (The report did not define “sufficient time.”) Among this group, 41% reported that physician productivity has increased. What is disturbing about this statistic, however, is the implication of the converse—that even among these most accomplished EHR users, the majority of physicians (59%) are seeing a decrease, or at best no increase, in productivity. For the total population studied, 43% have just worked their way back up to where they were before implementation, and 31% of respondents are experiencing an actual productivity decrease.

Productivity was the major factor accounting for why 8% of survey participants are in the process of replacing their EHR with another, while anticipated productivity loss was reported as the most significant barrier to EHR implementation for physicians still using paper charts. Among these paper users, 78% fear productivity loss during implementation and 67% worry about the effect even after the transition to an EHR.

This data confirms past experience regarding productivity loss and raises these critical questions:

  • Why do only 16.3% of EHR owners categorize themselves as “optimizing their use of an EHR”?
  • While government incentives will certainly address the financing concerns expressed by small practices, how will this money address the productivity obstacle for all adopters?
  • What accounts for the loss of productivity?
  • When technology has replaced an antiquated paper process in other industries, it has always brought increases in productivity. How do we deliver the same results in healthcare?

The MGMA report did not tie satisfaction and productivity to the particular EHR being used, but there were clearly some successes, so it is important to understand what differentiates these implementations. It all comes down to usability. According to a recent HIMSS Task Force Report on why adoption has been so slow, “A key reason, aside from initial costs and lost productivity during EMR implementation, is lack of efficiency and usability of EMRs currently available.” I maintain that lost productivity and lack of usability are one and the same.

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.