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.