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.

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!