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.

Government EHR Program: Potentially Harmful Unintended Consequences

I am really intrigued by the latest creation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last week, HHS announced a contract to set up a group of experts to identify and attempt to fix any “undesirable” and “potentially harmful unintended consequences” that result from the stimulus legislation’s EHR incentives. According to the announcement, which was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website: “Historical experience, as well as mounting evidence of unexpected problems, demands that we consider potential downsides.”

My curiosity is piqued! What are the unexpected consequences the government anticipates, and why is HHS so concerned? Awaiting the report from the panel of experts, I started thinking—and it didn’t take me long to create a list of my own.

My top three unintended consequences are the following: (If you’d like to suggest other potential unanticipated consequences—positive or negative—please submit a comment at the bottom of this page.)

  • There will be more EHR failures than successes, particularly among high-performance specialists.
  • “Certification” will stifle innovation.
  • Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market among high-performance physicians.

More EHR Failures:

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. (5) Physicians will try to transfer data entry tasks to scribes and other lower-cost employees (assuming that the regulations allow CPOE to be done by other than the ordering provider), but this strategy will not make economic sense, either, since the additional costs will outweigh the government incentives. 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.

“Certification” will stifle innovation:

Innovation will suffer, as it did in the past when many EHR vendors devoted all their development resources to complying with the long list of CCHIT-certification requirements. Forcing all vendors seeking certification to meet the same criteria will surely sap the drive for innovation. As vendors burn through precious development resources to meet evolving government standards instead of improving their core product, they will fail to respond to the interests of their customers, i.e., the physicians. Sales and marketing will drive physicians’ choices, rather than the EHR products themselves. Large companies, which have the largest sales organizations and marketing budgets, will be successful in the short term. Smaller vendors who follow the herd instead of their entrepreneurial and innovative instincts will be driven out of the market.

Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market:

The good news is that innovation will triumph in the end. Alternative solutions—like the hybrid EMR—will prevail as high-performance physicians find success with products that focus on their needs and enhance their productivity. It will take 4 to 5 years for physicians who have experienced government-program EHR failures to reapproach the market after amortizing their losses. These physicians will seek products that focus on clinical-workflow efficiency and physician productivity. The long-term winners in the EHR market will be those vendors who resist the temptation to chase the “windfall” stemming from the stimulus legislation, and instead focus on improving their products to deliver these benefits.

Please share your thoughts on other possible unintended consequences by submitting a comment below.