Know your EMR needs (Towards the Electronic Patient Record conference)
■ With more vendors entering the industry, experts say, physicians can be choosy about their technology. But first identify your key choices.
By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted July 14, 2008
When Cleveland internist James Saul, MD, implemented an electronic medical record in 2004, he was simply looking for a system that would integrate with his practice management software.
He didn't consider how an EMR might change his work flow, for better or worse, or how it could generate revenue.
Luckily, Dr. Saul said, his implementation was successful. But he regrets not thinking ahead, as there are features he wishes he had but that his vendor doesn't offer.
Many physicians have had buyers' remorse over systems. Fear of such remorse is often listed as a major factor in doctors not buying health information technology.
At the recent Towards the Electronic Patient Record conference, technology vendors and other stakeholders discussed how to combat these fears and expand the use of health IT.
As has often been said, physicians need to analyze their practice work flow and how technology will affect it so they may become wiser buyers.
"Unless you know what you want, you will get what you deserve, which may not be what you need," said Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, a physician consultant for the EHR Now! project of the Florida Academy of Family Physicians. The project is offering free EMRs to physicians through a contract with the Medicare Quality Improvement Organization for Florida.
Vendors also acknowledged that they needed to make changes to make the decision easier for physicians.
Jack Callahan, vice president of corporate development for West Des Moines, Iowa-based MediNotes Corp., said his company has been forced to change many times in its 11-year existence, both in terms of the systems themselves and in how the company sells them.
"We've had to adapt to everything," he said, adding that not only are doctors more educated now in terms of what they want, but they also are demanding systems that meet certain criteria for interoperability or certifications such as that from the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology.
It shouldn't be news by now that a practice will experience changes to its work flow once it goes electronic. While most vendors and consultants agree this fact has too often been ignored or underestimated, many doctors are now getting the message as they learn from others' mistakes.
"I think those who are skilled in implementation have known work flow is important but there's now a critical mass of experienced peer physicians who can stand up and say, 'They told me, and I didn't listen,' " said Carol Slone, RN, a regional manager for the Weymouth, Mass.-based consultancy firm Beacon Partners.
Kevin Spencer, MD, a family physician with the South Austin (Texas) Family Practice, learned the hard way that figuring out what you need and want has to be done before implementation.
Dr. Spencer is in the market for his third EMR. His first EMR project was scrapped after he folded his solo practice into another group. Implementation of the EMR that his newly formed group purchased went downhill because, Dr. Spencer said, the group didn't get the vendor support necessary to help with the work flow issues that he now knows should have been addressed prior to adoption. "We learned the hard way to do the work ahead of time."
Deresa Claybrook, with the Moore, Okla.-based consultancy firm Positive Resources, said practices often can't foresee the ways technology can change the way they do things. For example, at one practice she worked with, a billing clerk did not understand that workers' comp forms would no longer have to be faxed, but could be sent electronically. These are the types of system features that practices need to be aware of when they are analyzing work flow changes prior to implementation, she said.
But adopting an EMR shouldn't just be about automating what is happening in the paper world. Practices should also think about potential EMR advantages, such as finding new sources of revenue or ways to meet patient demands for services such as e-prescriptions and e-mail contact.
Dr. Saul said when he implemented his system four years ago, little was said about e-prescribing. When he recently decided he wanted e-prescribing, he had to implement it as a stand-alone system because his EMR vendor doesn't offer an integrated option.
Barbara Cox, senior principal for the Noblis Center for Health Innovation in Hunting Valley, Ohio, agrees that physicians need to think about services their patients might later demand, such as online scheduling, use of a personal health record, and e-mail consultations. Finding a system that either includes those things or can allow for them to be added later will save the physician from regretting his of her EMR decision down the road.
But doing that homework is harder for a small practice that cannot easily afford a consultant, said Dr. Spencer. "I think that needs to be on the vendor side and part of their consultation. More vendors need to sell themselves as consultants."
Liz Rockowitz, regional manager for the eastern division of Beacon Partners, said she has noticed that more experienced vendors have learned to create systems more adaptable than the "cookie-cutter" solutions initially offered.
Early adopters who wanted customizable systems could get them, but at a price far out of reach for many practices.
Slone said she has worked with clients who said no to customization because of the cost, but then realized, almost immediately, that the systems didn't fit their needs. "It's like putting in a scarlet pink carpet when you know you hate scarlet pink, but it was the cheapest. So you put it in, then complain about it."
Callahan said his company's solution -- an approach that is becoming more common with other vendors -- was to build a system easily customizable by the user. That has allowed his company to sell to physicians in 31 different specialties, he said.
But the solution for other vendors has been to remain cookie-cutter and reach out to niche markets, according to Rockowitz. Some vendors have entered the market with systems designed for a particular specialty, for example, or for a certain practice size.
Vendors are making systems more affordable, plus easier to use and maintain, experts say. One major change has been moving the servers to remote data centers instead of hosting the data locally, according to Cox.
Remote hosting not only allows the physicians to access the data from almost anywhere with Internet access, but it also reduces the costs of maintaining a locally hosted server.
"When vendors started hosting products and making the data available online, the rest wanted to do it. I'm surprised now when I see one who won't," Cox said.
While similar trends have emerged across the board, each system is still unique, experts say.
Once again: Be prepared
To ensure a successful implementation, practices must do their homework, said Belinda Pirtle, founder and president of CARR Instructional Design, a consultancy based in Washington, D.C.
Practices should analyze current work flow, determine how they would like the work flow to exist after EMR implementation, then take that chart to each vendor and ask them to provide a system to match it, she said.
"If this vendor can't do it, there's enough EMRs out there to find what you need," Pirtle said.
No vendor has everything, warned Rockowitz. But "everyone has pain points. You measure pain points versus cost."