EHR Usability: Is There a Right Path?

Posted on December 9, 2013 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

The following is a guest post by Carl Bergman from EHR Selector.

Earlier this fall, the AMA sponsored a Rand Corporation study on physician’s professional satisfaction. Based on interviews with physicians in 30 practices, the study covers a variety of topics from workplace setting to quality of care, EHRs and health reform, etc. At the time, the report generated discussion about dissatisfaction in general with EHRs and MU in particular.

Usability, Part of MU?
Overlooked in the discussion was a new and important recommendation on usability. Here’s what is says:

Physicians look forward to future EHRs that will solve current problems of data entry, difficult user interfaces, and information overload. Specific steps to hasten these technological advances are beyond the scope of this report. However, as a general principle, our findings suggest including improved EHR usability as a precondition for federal EHR certification. (Factors Affecting Physician Professional Satisfaction and Their Implications for Patient Care, Health Systems, and Health Policy, p.142) Emphasis added.

It would be overkill to say that this represents adopted AMA policy, however, it’s not overkill to say that the recommendation is part of a project that the AMA initiated and supports. As such, it is most significant that it recognizes the need to bring some coherence to EHR usability and that the MU system is the logical place to put it.

Changing the Vendor – User Relationship
One commentator who did notice the recommendation was EHR Intelligence’s Robert Green. In his review, Green took a different tack. While agreeing that usability needs improvement, he saw a different way to get change:

Usability remains an enigma in many clinic-EHR vendor relationships because it hasn’t been nearly as important in the recent years’ dialogue as “meaningful use.” But among the competing priorities, usability among physicians and their EHR vendor is a real opportunity to develop shared expectations for a new user experience.

As a patient, I would rather not see the delegation of the “usability” dialogue of EHR to those in the roles of meaningful use certification. Instead, physicians who have spent many years of their lives learning how to “take care of patients” could seize the moment to define their own expectations with their EHR vendor of choice within and beyond their practice. (How connected is EHR user satisfaction to vendor choice?) Emphasis added.

I think these two different paths put the question squarely. They agree that usability needs increased action. Users have gotten their message across with alacrity: all systems fail users in some aspect. Some fail catastrophically. Though some vendors take usability to heart, the industry’s response has been uneven and sporadic.

Where these two approaches differ is tactics. Rand looks at usability, and sees an analog to MU functions. It opts for adding usability to MU’s tests. Green sees it as part of the dialogue between user and vendor.

As a project manager and analyst, my heart is with Green. Indeed, helping users find a system that’s a best fit is why we started the Selector.

Marketplace Practicalities
Nevertheless, relying on a physician – vendor dialogue is, at best, limited and at worst unworkable. It won’t work for several reasons:

  • Nature of the Market. There’s not just one EHR market place where vendors contend for user dollars, there are several. The basic divide is between ambulatory and in patient types. In each of these there are many subdivisions depending on practice size and specialty. Though a vendor may place the same product name on its offerings in these areas, their structure, features and target groups differ greatly. What this means is that practices find themselves in small sellers’ markets and that they have little leverage for requesting mods.
  • Resources. Neither vendors nor practices have the resources needed to tailor each installation’s interface and workflow. Asking a vendor, under the best of circumstances, to change their product to suit a particular practice’s interface approach not only would be expensive, but also would create a support nightmare.
  • Cloud Computing. For vendors, putting their product in the cloud has the major advantage of supporting only one, live application. Supporting a variety of versions is something vendors want to avoid. Similarly, users don’t want to hear that a feature is available, but not to them.
  • More Chaos. Having each practice define usability could lead to no agreement on any basics leaving users even worse off. It’s bad enough now. For example as Ross Koppel points out, EHRs record blood pressure in dozens of different ways. Letting a thousand EHRs blossom, as it were, would make matters worse.

ONC as Facilitator Not Developer
If the vendor – buyer relationship won’t work, here’s a way the MU process could work. ONC would use an existing usability protocol and report on compliance.

Reluctance to put ONC in charge of usability standards is understandable. It’s no secret that the MU standards aren’t a hands down hit. All three MU stages have spawned much criticism. The criticism, however, is not that there are standards so much as individual ONC’s standards are too arcane, vague or difficult to meet. ONC doesn’t need to develop what already exists. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology usability protocols were openly developed, drawing from many sources. They are respected and are not seen as captured by any one faction. (See NISTIR 7804. And see, June 14, 2012.)

As I’ve written elsewhere, NIST’s protocols aren’t perfect, but they give vendors and users a solid standard for measuring EHR usability. Using them, ONC could require that each vendor run a series of tests and compare the results to the NIST protocols. The tool to do this, TURF, already exists.

Rather than rate each product’s on a pass – fail basis, ONC would publish each product’s test results. Buyers could rate product against their needs. Vendors whose products tested poorly would have a strong incentive to change.

EHRs make sense in theory. They also need to work in practice, but don’t. The AMA –Rand study is a call for ONC to step up and takes a usability leadership role. Practice needs to match promise.