Are EHRs Being Oversold?

I am a firm believer in the tremendous value that the right EHR can deliver to physicians, so the historic dissatisfaction with the EHR industry—as reported in studies and anecdotal conversations—has long disturbed me. The alarming intensity of this dissatisfaction was brought home by visitors to my company’s booth during the recent AAO (American Academy of Ophthalmology) meeting.

I was truly appalled by the abject frustration and anger expressed by numerous physicians about their EHRs. One visitor described his experience by saying, “It has taken the joy out of practicing medicine.” Another said that he felt like he should put a picture of his face on the back of his head so that his patients could see him—because he was forced to focus on the computer and enter data while the patient provided information. Physicians universally complained about the “productivity-killing” impact.

From AAO - Are EHRs Being Oversold?Why is this so? I know there are good EHR products in the market that physicians enjoy using and that enhance, rather than reduce, their productivity. Why are physicians not more successful in finding these?

The answer is that EHRs are being oversold. There are many EHRs that are marvels of software, capable of doing incredible things, but the selection process that physicians typically employ is flawed, and the sales process capitalizes on this shortcoming. The salesperson dazzles them with a demo, or they take prospective purchasers to see a physician—typically just one or two—who adeptly uses the software. This creates a false sense of ease-of-use, and the physician prospect leaves the site visit expecting that he or she will be able to use the EHR just as successfully. But not all physicians are alike—they may all be very intelligent and have tremendous medical expertise, but they are not all equal in technological inclination or skills. Their success—or lack thereof—with a particular EHR will vary significantly.

This brings us back to the importance of doing due diligence—something I have talked about before. Call and/or visit a variety of physicians who represent a wide spectrum of proficiency. Go to the reference practice’s website and select physicians on your own—don’t rely on the vendor’s selection. Ask the kind of questions listed in the last EMR Straight Talk. This is the only way to increase the odds of a successful EHR experience, and to avoid making a painful and costly mistake.

Blumenthal and EHR Program: Time Will Tell

In the aftermath of Dr. Blumenthal’s departure announcement, he has received abundant praise for his accomplishments, his leadership, and his commitment to EHR adoption. There is a general consensus that the groundwork has been laid and that sufficient organizational structures are in place to move the EHR adoption program forward smoothly, despite the upcoming change in command at ONC.

Most writers have attributed Blumenthal’s departure to his need to return to Harvard—which had granted him its standard two-year leave of absence—since his option to retain a tenured position expires at the end of that period. According to Secretary Sebelius, this schedule was incorporated in the HHS plan from the outset.

Some people are more cynical regarding Blumenthal’s reasons for departing, like one of the commenters on last week’s EMR Straight Talk post, who suggested that he is getting out “before the roof collapses.” They cite recent studies that question the link between EHRs and quality of care, the loss of confidence among some providers regarding their ability to meet the meaningful use requirements, and the recent (albeit unsuccessful) attempt by House Republicans to repeal unspent funding that would have included the EHR incentive program. These commenters express doubt as to whether the momentum toward health IT adoption will continue.

Others say new leadership will be a good thing. John Moore of Chilmark Research posits that the EHR program is at a turning point—and that as it transitions from the development phase into the operational phase, it should be led by someone with operational experience rather than by an academician.

No doubt, top PR people were involved in the orchestration of the Blumenthal announcement. What still concerns me is why it was not accompanied by the naming of his replacement—a sentiment that has been echoed by many industry pundits, (Ken Terry, for example). This begs the question: What does it really mean? Time will tell.

Specialists: Square Pegs in the Government’s Round EHR Holes?

It has been abundantly clear to me that the government’s EHR program is not relevant for specialists and other high-volume physicians. It was evident from the outset that specialists were never the focus of the legislation, but recent program-funding announcements dispel—once and for all—any doubts about the government’s intentions in this regard. Furthermore, the type of EHRs that are designed to meet the government’s criteria are not responsive to the particular needs of specialist physicians. The comments I continue to receive, and those posted elsewhere, are adamant on that point.

As a result, the Stimulus Legislation poses overwhelming challenges for specialists—challenges that outweigh any potential returns. This is hardly surprising given the lack of input from specialists in the decision-making process. With only one or two exceptions, the physicians involved are all primary-care or informatics experts, not specialists. It was not until October that the question of specialists was even discussed, and so the “meaningful use” criteria that emerged don’t fit the services that specialists routinely provide, nor do they fit the way specialists routinely practice medicine, at least not without major workflow disruptions.

The focus on primary care is indisputable. Look at the programs that have been announced and funded in just the last two weeks:

  • February 2, 2010: ONC will survey 1,700 patients in 84 primary-care practices because it recognizes “an evidence gap about patients’ preferences and perceptions of delivery of health care services by providers who have adopted EHR systems.” (Notice in the Federal Register)
  • February 12, 2010: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced $375 million in funding for Regional Extension Centers (RECs), which will “provide outreach and support services to at least 100,000 primary-care providers and hospitals within 2 years.” In describing the RECs, David Blumenthal stated, “Primary-care providers in small practices provide the great majority of services in the U.S. but have limited resources to implement, meaningfully use, and maintain EHR systems. On-site technical assistance for these priority-primary care providers will be a key service offered by the RECs.”

But the biggest obstacle for specialists remains the traditional EHR products themselves—the challenges posed by the government program only compound the fact that these EHRs are fundamentally so difficult for many physicians to use. Designed for primary-care practices, their success has been limited to that arena. Traditional EHRs are built around the creation of exam notes, not around workflow and physician productivity. The highly leveraged nature of specialists’ practices—where office visits lead to surgeries and other procedures—makes their economics highly sensitive to even small negative impacts on productivity. In addition, their high patient volumes make workflow-focused software critical, and note-focused software unusable. For example, a 10% reduction in productivity for the average specialist would result in an annual revenue loss of over $100,000. (Use our physician productivity calculator to estimate the cost to your own practice.) As a result, there are a very few large specialty practices that have successfully and fully adopted a traditional EHR.

The government should be up front about their interests and acknowledge their focus on primary care. Until they devote the same kind of resources to finding out what works in medical specialty practices, they should just leave the specialists out of the program—exempting them from both incentives and penalties.

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.