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Yet Another Study Says EMRs Contribute to Physician Burnout

Posted on September 21, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A Mayo Clinic study recently concluded that – surprise, surprise – that physicians who used EMRs were less likely to be satisfied with the amount of time spent on clerical tasks. But from where I sit, while the story certainly deserves attention, it’s also worth considering how this fits into the problem of physician burnout on the whole.

First, let’s review the study itself. To conduct the study, which appeared in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers connected with 6,375 physicians in active practice, 5,389 of which (84.5%) reported using EMRs. Meanwhile, of 5,892 physicians who said that CPOE was relevant to their practice specialty, 4,858 (82.5%) said they used CPOE technology.

Researchers concluded that physicians who use EMRs and CPOE had lower satisfaction with time spent in clerical tasks and higher rates of burnout, including when the data was adjusted for age, sex, specialty, practice setting and hours worked per week. The bottom line, researchers said, was that this large national study demonstrated that satisfaction with EMRs and CPOE was generally low.

Now let’s take a look at the big picture on physician burnout. One comprehensive take comes from the American Academy of Family Physicians, whose position paper on the subject includes the following definition of burnout: “A syndrome characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion), feeling of cynicism (depersonalization), and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”

The AAFP paper, which points out that the phenomenon has been studied for decades, notes that 45.8% physicians are considered to be experiencing at least one symptom of burnout. According to a recent broad-based study, that there is currently a 35.2% overall burnout rate among U.S. physicians.

According to research cited by the AAFP, there’s still no definitive data on what causes physician burnout, but notes that common drivers of family physician burnout include paperwork, feeling undervalued, frustration referral networks, difficult patients, medicolegal issues, and challenges in finding work-life balance.

While I don’t want to minimize the impact that a badly-designed EMR can have a negative impact on a physician’s practice, or underplay the findings of the Mayo study cited above, I think it’s worth noting that the group doesn’t cite EMRs as a specific cause of burnout.

Clearly, physicians don’t like using EMRs for administrative work — and it even appears that they would rather use paper to handle such chores. However, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that doctors loved documenting on paper either. Complaints about not wanting to finish their charts were common in the paper world too.

And the truth is, as EMRs have gradually shifted from being vehicles to support billing to richer clinical documentation and support tools, it may very well have become harder to use them for routine administrative tasks. Vendors probably need to reconsider yet again the balance between clinical and administrative features, and how effective both are.

That being said, I think it’s important not to forget that physicians are facing many, many challenges, most of which began grinding away at their independence and self-respect well before EMRs became an established part of the picture.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that for some physicians, feeling forced to adopt an EMR has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And they certainly deserve a hearing. But if in the process, we allow ourselves to lose sight of the countless other problems physicians are struggling with, we are doing them a disservice. Addressing physicians’ EMR issues won’t fix everything that’s broken here.

MGMA Blames Rise in HIT Costs on Fed’s Regs

Posted on September 15, 2016 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.

MGMA’s released a study of 850 member’s practices showing HIT costs up by more than 45 percent in the last six years. MGMA puts much of the blame on federal regulations. It’s concerned that:

Too much of a practice’s IT investment is tied directly to complying with the ever-increasing number of federal requirements, rather than to providing better patient care. Unless we see significant changes in the final MIPS/APM rule, practice IT costs will continue to rise without a corresponding improvement in the care delivery process.

There may be a good case that the HITECH act is responsible for the lion’s share of HIT growth for these and other providers, but MGMA study doesn’t make the case – not by far.

What the study does do is track the rise in HIT costs since 2011 for physician owned, multispecialty practices. For example, MGMA’s press release notes that IT costs have gone up by almost 47 percent since 2009.

In fairness, MGMA also notes that costs may have also gone up do to other costs, such as patient portals, etc. However, the release emphasizes that regulations are at great fault.

Here’s why MGMA’s case falls flat:

  • Seeing Behind the Paywall. If you want to examine the study, it’ll cost you $655 to read it. Many similar studies that charge, provide a good synopsis and spell out their methodology. MGMA doesn’t do either.
  • Identifying the Issue. It’s one thing to complain about regulations. It’s quite another to identify which ones specifically harm productivity without compensating benefit. MGMA cites regulations without so much as an example.
  • Lacking Comparables. MGMA’s press release notes that total HIT costs were $32,000 per practitioner. However, this does not look at non HIT support costs, nor does it address comparable support costs from other professions.
  • Breaking Down Costs. The study offers comparable information to practitioners by specialty types, etc. However, all IT costs are lumped together and called HIT.
  • Ignoring Backgrounds. MGMA notes that HIT costs rose most dramatically between 2010 and 2011, which marked MU1’s advent. It doesn’t address these practices’ IT state in 2009. It would be good to know how many were ready to install an EHR and how many had to make basic IT improvements?
  • Finessing Productivity. Other than mentioning patient portals, MGMA ignores any productivity changes due to HIT. For example, how long did it take and what did it cost to do a refill request before HIT and now? This and similar productivity measures could give a good view of HIT’s impact.

It’s popular to beat up on HITs in general and EHRs in general. Lord knows, EHRs have their problems, but many of the ills laid at their doorstep are just so much piling on. Or, as is this case, are used to make a connection for the sake of political argument.

Studies that want to get at the effect HIE and EHRs have had on the practice of medicine need to be carefully done. They need to look at how things were done, what they could accomplish and what costs were before and after HIT changes. Otherwise, the study’s data are fitted to the conclusions not the other way around.

MGMA’s a major and important player with a record of service to its members. In this case, it’s using its access to important practice information in support of an antiregulatory policy goal rather than to help determine HIT’s real status.

Enterprise EHR Vendors Consolidating Hold On Doctors

Posted on September 9, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

When I stumbled across a recent study naming the EHRs most widely used by physicians, I don’t know what I expected, but I did not think big-iron enterprise vendors would top the list. I was wrong.

In fact, I should have guessed that things would play out this way for giants like Epic, though not because physicians adore them. Forces bigger than the Cerners and Epics of the world, largely the ongoing trend towards buyouts of medical groups by hospitals, have forced doctors’ hand. But more on this later.

Context on physician EHR adoption
First, some stats for context.  To compile its 2016 EHR Report, Medscape surveyed 15,285 physicians across 25 specialties. Researchers asked them to name their EHR and rate their systems on several criteria, including ease of use and value as a clinical tool.

When it came to usage, Epic came in at first place in both 2012 and 2016, but climbed six percentage points to 28% of users this year. This dovetails with other data points, such that Epic leads the hospital and health system market, according to HIT Consultant, which reported on the study.

Meanwhile, Cerner climbed from third place to second place, but it only gained one percentage point in the study, hitting 10% this year. It took the place of Allscripts, which ranked second in 2012 but has since dropped out of the small practice software market.

eClinicalWorks came in third with 7% share, followed by NextGen (5%) and MEDITECH (4%). eClinicalWorks ranked in fifth place in the 2012 study, but neither NextGen nor MEDITECH were in the top five most used vendors four years ago. This shift comes in part due to the disappearance of Centricity from the list, which came in fourth in the 2012 research.

Independents want different EHRs
I was interested to note that when the researchers surveyed independent practices with their own EHRs, usage trends took a much different turn. eClinicalWorks rated first in usage among this segment, at 12% share, followed by Practice Fusion and NextGen, sharing the second place spot with 8% each.

One particularly striking data point provided by the report was that roughly one-third of these practices reported using “other systems,” notably EMA/Modernizing Medicine (1.6%), Office Practicum (1.2%) and Aprima (0.8%).

I suppose you could read this a number of ways, but my take is that physicians aren’t thrilled by the market-leading systems and are casting about for alternatives. This squares with the results of a study released by Physicians Practice earlier this year, which reported that only a quarter of so of practices felt they were getting a return on investment from their system.

Time for a modular model
So what can we take away from these numbers?  To me, a few things seem apparent:

* While this wasn’t always the case historically, hospitals are pushing out enterprise EHRs to captive physicians, probably the only defensible thing they can do at this point given interoperability concerns. This is giving these vendors more power over doctors than they’ve had in the past.

* Physicians are not incredibly fond of even the EHRs they get to choose. I imagine they’re even less thrilled by EHRs pushed out to them by hospitals and health systems.

* Ergo, if a vendor could create an Epic- or Cerner-compatible module designed specifically – and usably — for outpatient use, they’d offer the best of two worlds. And that could steal the market out from under the eClinicalWorks and NextGens of the world.

It’s possible that one of the existing ambulatory EHR leaders could re-emerge at the top if it created such a module, I imagine. But it’s hard for even middle-aged dogs to learn new tricks. My guess is that this mantle will be taken up by a company we haven’t heard of yet.

In the mean time, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the physician-first EHR players stand a chance of keeping their market share.

ONC’s Budget Performance Measure Dashboards Makes Goal Tracking Easy

Posted on August 9, 2016 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.

I recently wrote a post how it’s not easy to compare ONC’s spending plans with what it actually did. That’s not the case with ONC’s Budget Performance Measures. Its Performance Measure dashboard makes those comparisons easy and understandable. For example, you can look up EHR adoption among office based physicians.

Here’s how to use it. On the dashboard page, Figure I, select a general area using the radio buttons. Depending on your choice, the system will list specific issues. You select the one you want from the drop down menu on the right. You can also adjust the period covered. Right clicking a graph downloads it.

Figure I – ONC Dashboard Menu

ONC Dashboard Menu

It’s in the graph that the dashboard excels. It clearly shows targets and results. For example, Figure II shows that while office EHR adoption has grown over the years, it’s running below ONC’s goals. If you’d only saw the actual – which is the case with ONC’s budget — you’d only see adoption going up. You’d have no clue ONC’s goal wasn’t met.

Figure II – ONC Primary Care Adoption

Office Based Primary Care Doc Adoption

These dashboards give the public a way to understand what ONC wants to do and how well — or not so well — its done toward its goals. In doing so, ONC has given us a scoreboard that not only measures what it’s doing, but it also allows the public to focus on benchmarks. ONC’s fiscal reporting isn’t the clearest, but with these dashboards they’ve done themselves well.

ONC’s Budget: A Closer Look

Posted on August 3, 2016 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.

When HHS released ONC’s proposed FY2017 budget last winter, almost all attention focused on one part, a $22 million increase for interoperability. While the increase is notable, I think ONC’s full $82 Million budget deserves some attention.

ONC’s FY2017 Spending Plan.

Table I, summarizes ONC’s plan for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The first thing to note is that ONC’s funding would change from general budget funds, known as Budget Authority or BA, to Public Health Service Evaluation funds. HHS’ Secretary may allocate up to 2.1 percent of HHS’ funds to these PHS funds. This change would not alter Congress’ funding role, but apparently signals HHS’s desire to put ONC fully in the public health sector.

Table I
ONC FY2017 Budget


What the ONC Budget Shows and What it Doesn’t

ONC’s budget follows the standard, federal government budget presentation format. That is, it lists, by program, how many people and how much money is allocated. In this table, each fiscal year, beginning with FY2015, shows the staffing level and then spending.

Staffing is shown in FTEs, that is, full time equivalent positions. For example, if two persons work 20 hours each, then they are equivalent to one full time person or FTE.

Spending definitions for each fiscal year is a little different. Here’s how that works:

  • FY2015 – What actually was spent or how many actually were hired
  • FY2016 – The spending and hiring Congress set for ONC for the current year.
  • FY2017 – The spending and hiring in the President’s request to Congress for next year.

If you’re looking to see how well or how poorly ONC does its planning, you won’t see it here. As with other federal and most other government budgets, you never see a comparison of plans v how they really did. For example, FY2015 was the last complete fiscal year. ONC’s budget doesn’t have a column showing its FY2015 budget and next to it, what it actually did. If it did, you could see how well or how poorly it did following its plan.

You can’t see the amount budgeted for FY2015 in ONC’s budget, except for its total budget. However, if you look at the FY2016 ONC budget, you can see what was budgeted for each of its four programs. While the budget total and the corresponding actual are identical -$60,367,000, the story at the division level is quite different.

                                   Table II
                    ONC FY2015 Budget v Actual


FY2015 Budget $ FY2015 Actuals $ Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 12,474 13,112 638
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 15,230 15,425 195
Adoption and Meaningful Use 11,139 10,524 (615)
Agency-wide Support 21,524 21,306 (218)
Total 60,367 60,367


Table II, shows this by comparing the FY2015 Enacted Budget from ONC’s FY2015 Actuals for its four major activities. While the total remained the same, it shows that there was a major shift of $638,000 from Meaningful Use to Policy. There was a lesser shift of $195,000 from Agency Support to Standards. These shifts could have been actual transfers or they could have been from under and over spending by the divisions.

Interestingly, Table III for staffing shows a different pattern. During FY2015, ONC dropped 25 FTEs, a dozen from Policy Development and the rest from Standards and Meaningful Use. That means, for example, that Policy Development had less people and more money during FY2015.

Table III
ONC FY2015
Budget v Actual Staffing FTEs
Division FY2015 Budget FTEs FY2015 Actuals FTEs Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 49 37 (12)
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 32 26 (6)
Adoption and Meaningful Use 49 42 (7)
Agency-wide Support 55 55
Total 185 160 25


To try to make sense of this, I looked at the current and past year’s budgets, but to no avail. As best I can tell is ONC made great use of contracts and other non personnel services. For example, ONC spent $30 Million on purchase/contracts, which is $8 million more than it did on its payroll.

ONC’s budget, understandably, concentrates on its programs and plans. It puts little emphasis on measuring its hiring and spending abilities. It’s not alone, budgets government and otherwise, are forecast and request documents. However, if we could know how plans went – without having to dig in last year’s weeds  – it would let us know how well a program executed its plans as well as make them. That would be something worth knowing.

Physicians Still Struggle To Find EHR Value

Posted on July 18, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A new study by Physicians Practice magazine suggests that medical groups still aren’t getting what they want out of their EHRs, with nearly one-fifth reporting that they’re still struggling with an EHR-related drop in productivity and others still trying to optimize their system.

Physicians Practice surveyed 1,568 physicians, advanced practice providers across the U.S. as part of its 2016 Technology Survey. Nearly a third of respondents (31.9%) were in solo practice, and 34% in 2 to 5 physician practices, with percentages largely dropping as practice sizes grew larger.

Specialties represented included pediatrics (17.5%), family medicine (16.2%), OB/GYN (15.2%), psychiatry (12%), internal medicine (10.6%), surgery (2.9%), general practice (2.7%) and “other” at 22.9% (led by ophthalmology). As to business models, 63.3% of practices were independently-owned, 27.9% were part of an integrated delivery network and the remaining 8.8% were “other,” led by federally-qualified health centers.

Here’s some interesting data points from the survey, with my take:

  • Almost 40% of EHR users are struggling to get value out of their system: When asked what their most pressing technology problem was, 20.3% said it was optimizing use of their EHR, 18.9% a drop in productivity due to their EHR, and 12.9% a lack of interoperability between EHRs. Both EHR implementation and costs to implement and use technologies came in at 8%.
  • EHR rollouts are maturing, but many practices are lagging: About 59% of respondents had a fully-implemented EHR in place, with 14.5% using a system provided by a hospital or corporate parent. But 16.8% didn’t have an EHR, and 9.5% had selected an EHR (or a corporate parent had done so for them) but hadn’t fully implemented or optimized yet.
  • Many practices that skip EHRs don’t think they’re worth the trouble and expense: Almost 41% of respondents who don’t have a system in place said that they don’t believe it would improve patient care, 24.4% said that such systems are too expensive. A small but meaningful subset of the non-users (6.6%) said they’d “heard too many horror stories.”
  • Medical group EHR implementations are fairly slow, with more than one-quarter limping on for over a year: More than a third (37.2%) of practices reported that full implementation and training took up to six months, 21.2% said it took more than six months and less than a year, 12.8% said more than a year but less than 18 months, and 15.7% at more than 18 months.
  • Most practices haven’t seen a penny of return on their EHR investment: While just about one-quarter of respondents (25.7%) reported that they’d gotten ROI from their system, almost three-quarters (74.3%) said they had not.
  • Loyalty to EHR vendors is lukewarm at best: When asked how they felt about their EHR vendor, 39.7% said they were satisfied and would recommend them, but felt other vendors would be just as good. Just over 16% said they were very satisfied. Meanwhile, more than 17% were either dissatisfied and regretted their purchase or ready to switch to another system.
  • The big EHR switchout isn’t just for hospitals: While 62.1% of respondents said that the EHR they had in place was their first, 27.1% were on their second system, and 10.8% their third or more.

If you want to learn more, I recommend the report highly (click here to get it). But it doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way these winds are blowing. Clearly, many practices still need a hand in getting something worthwhile from their EHR, and I hope they get it.

Specialty-Focused EHRs Re-Entering The Picture

Posted on June 6, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Over time, I’ve read a great deal on whether specialist clinicians should invest in EHRs designed for their area of practice or not. One school of thought seems to be that specialists can do just fine by buying broadly-based systems and implementing practice-specific templates, a move which also offers them a longer list of EHRs from which they can choose. Another, meanwhile, is that EHRs designed for use by all clinicians can undercut practice efficiency by forcing specialist workflow into a one-size-fits-all straightjacket.

But the arguments in favor of specialized EHRs seem to be taking hold of late. According to the latest data from Black Book, specialist surgical and medical practices have been switching over to specialty-driven EHRs in overwhelming numbers during the first half of this year. Its researchers found that during the first and second quarter of 2016, 86% of the 11,300 specialty practices it surveyed were in favor of switching from generalist to specialist EHRs.

According to the research firm, 93% of specialists surveyed felt that templates available in specialty EHRs offered a substantial benefit to patients who needed individualized documentation, especially in practices that see a high volume of predictable diagnoses.

If that’s the case, why did so many specialists start out with generalized EHRs?  Eighty-nine percent of respondents said that they bought the non-specialist EHR they had because they were focused on meeting Meaningful Use deadlines, which left them too little time to vet their original EHR vendor sufficiently.

Lately, however, specialist practices have decided that generic EHRs just aren’t workable, Black Book found. Nearly all respondents (92%) said that given their workflow needs, they could not afford to spend time need to shape all-purpose systems to their needs. When they switched over to purchasing a specialty-driven EHR, on the other hand, specialists found it much easier to support ultra-specific practice needs and generate revenue, Black Book reported.

That being said, specialists also switched from generalized EHRs to practice-specific systems for reasons other than clinical efficiency. Black Book found that 29% of specialists make the change because they felt their current, generic EHR was not achieving market success, raising the possibility that the vendor would not be able to support their growth and might not even be stable enough to trust.

Specialists may also be switching over because the systems serving their clinical niche have improved. Black Book researchers note that back in 2010, 80% of specialist physicians felt that specialized EHRs were not configurable or flexible enough to meet their needs. So it’s no surprise that they chose to go to with more robust multi-use and primary care systems, argues Black Book’s Doug Brown.

Now, however, specialized EHRs perform much better, it seems. In particular, improvements in implementations, updates, usability and customization have boosted satisfaction of specialist EHRs from 13% meeting or exceeding expectations in 2012 to 84% in the second quarter of 2016.

Still, practices that buy specialty EHRs do make some significant trade-offs, researchers said. Specifically, 88% of specialists said they were concerned about a lack of interoperability with other providers, particularly inpatient facilities. Respondents reported that specialty-specific EHRs aren’t fitting well within hospital network and regional health information exchanges, imposing a considerable disadvantage over large multispecialty EHRs.

And not surprisingly, investing in a replacement specialty EHR has proven to be a financial burden for specialist practices, Black Book concluded. Forty-eight percent of all specialty practices switching EHRs between June 2014 and April 2016 said that making such investment has put the practice in an unstable financial position, the research firm found.

My general sense from reading this research is that specialist practices have good reasons to replace their generalized EHR with a specialist EHR these days, as such products appear to have matured greatly in recent years. However, these practices had better be ready to deploy their new systems quickly and effectively, or the financial problems they’ll inherit will outweigh the benefits of the switchover.

Dumb Question 101: What’s Workflow Doing in an EHR?

Posted on March 29, 2016 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.

This was going to be a five year relook at Practice Fusion. Back then, I’d written a critical review saying I wouldn’t be a PF consultant. Going over PF now, I found it greatly changed. For example, I criticized it not having a shared task list. Now, it does. Starting to trace other functions, a question suddenly hit me. Why did I think an EHR should have a shared task list or any other workflow function for that matter?

It’s a given that an EHR is supposed to record and retrieve a patient’s medical data. Indeed, if you search for the definition of an EHR, you’ll find just that. For example, Wikipedia defines it this way:

An electronic health record (EHR), or electronic medical record (EMR), refers to the systematized collection of patient and population electronically-stored health information in a digital format.[1] These records can be shared across different health care settings. Records are shared through network-connected, enterprise-wide information systems or other information networks and exchanges. EHRs may include a range of data, including demographics, medical history, medication and allergies, immunization status, laboratory test results, radiology images, vital signs, personal statistics like age and weight, and billing information.[2]

Other definitions, such as HIMSS are similar, but add another critical element, workflow:

The EHR automates and streamlines the clinician’s workflow.

Is this a good or even desirable thing? Now, before Chuck Webster shoots out my porch lights, that doesn’t mean I’m anti workflow. However, I do ask what are workflow features doing in an EHR?

In EHRs early days, vendors realized they couldn’t drop one in a practice like a fax machine. EHRs were disruptive and not always in a good way. They often didn’t play well with practice management systems or the hodgepodge of forms, charts and lists they were replacing.

As a result, vendors started doing the workflow archeology and devising new ones as part of their installs. Over time, EHRs vendors started touting how they could reform not just replace an old system.

Hospitals were a little different. Most had IT staff that could shoehorn a new system into their environment. However, as troubled hospital EHR rollouts attest, they rarely anticipated the changes that EHRs would bring about.

Adding workflow functions to an EHR may have caused what my late brother called a “far away” result. That is, the farther away you were from something, the better it looked. With EHR workflow tools, the closer you get to their use, the more problems you may find.

EHRs are designed for end users. Adding workflow tools to these assumes that the users understand workflow dynamics and can use them accordingly. Sometimes this works well, but just as often the functions may not be as versatile as the situation warrants. Just ask the resident who can’t find the option they really need.

I think the answer to EHR workflow functions is this. They can be nice to have, like a car’s backup camera. However, having one doesn’t make you a good driver. Having workflow functions shouldn’t fool you into thinking that’s all workflow requires.

The only way to determine what’s needed is by doing a thorough, requirements analysis, working closely with users and developing the necessary workflow systems.

A better approach would be a workflow system that embeds its features in an EHR. That way, the EHR could fit more seamlessly its environment, rather than the other way around.

Is Cerner Edging Up On Epic?

Posted on January 7, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

At Verona, Wisc.-based Epic Systems, growth is a way of life. In fact, the EMR vendor now boasts a workforce of 9,400, which is estimated to be an increase of 1,400 staffers over the past year.

Not only that, Epic is confident enough to build cute. Its Campus 4, dubbed the “Wizards Academy Campus,” is designed to resemble the fictional Hogwarts school of Harry Potter fame — or if you’re academically-minded, England’s Oxford University. When completed this summer, Campus 4 will add 1,508 offices and 2,000 parking spaces to the Epic headquarters.

I could go on with details of the Disneyland Epic is making of its HQ, but you get the picture. Epic leaders are confident that they’re only going to expand their business, and they want to make sure the endless streams of young eggheads they recruit are impressed when they visit. My guess is that the Epic campus is being designed as a, well, campus speaks to the idea of seeing the company as a home. When I was 25, unique surroundings would have worked on me!

In any event, if I was running the place, I’d be pretty confident too. After all, if its own stats are correct, Epic software is either being used by or installed at 360 healthcare organizations in 10 countries. The EMR giant also reports that its platform manages records for 180 million Americans, or about 55 percent of the entire U.S. population. It also reported generating a not-so-shabby $1.8 billion in revenues for 2014.

But a little-noticed report issued by analyst firm KLAS last year raises questions as to whether the Epic steamroller can maintain its momentum. According to the report, which admittedly came out about a year ago, “the competition between Epic and Cerner is closer than it has been in years past as customers determine their future purchasing plans,” analysts wrote.

According to KLAS researchers, potential EMR buyers are largely legacy customers deciding how to upgrade. These potential customers are giving both Cerner and Epic a serous look, with the remainder split between Meditech and McKesson upgrades.

The KLAS summary doesn’t spell out exactly why researchers believe hospital leaders are beginning to take Cerner as seriously as Epic, but some common sense possibilities occur to me:

The price:  I’m not suggesting that Cerner comes cheap, but it’s become clear over the years that even very solvent institutions are struggling to pay for Epic technology. For example, when traditionally flush-with-cash Brigham and Women’s Hospital undershoots its expected surplus by $53 million due (at least in part) to its Epic install, it’s gotta mean something.

Budget overruns: More often than not, it seems that Epic rollouts end up costing a great deal more than expected. For example, when New York City-based Health and Hospital Corp. signed up to implement Epic in 2013, the deal weighed in at $302 million. Since then, the budget has climbed to $764 million, and overall costs could hit $1.4 billion. If I were still on the fence I’d find numbers like those more than a little concerning. And they’re far from unique.

Scarce specialists:  By the company’s own design, Epic specialists are hard to find. (Getting Epic certified seems to take an act of Congress.) It must be quite nerve-wracking to cut a deal with Epic knowing that Epic itself calls the shots on getting qualified help. No doubt this contributes to the high cost of Epic as well.

Despite its control of the U.S. market, Epic seems pretty sure that it has nowhere to go but up. But that’s what Microsoft thought before Google took hold. If that comparison bears any weight, the company that will lap up Epic’s business and reverse its hold on the U.S. market probably already exists. It may not be Cerner, but Epic will face meaningful competition sometime soon.

Significant Articles in the Health IT Community in 2015

Posted on December 15, 2015 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Have you kept current with changes in device connectivity, Meaningful Use, analytics in healthcare, and other health IT topics during 2015? Here are some of the articles I find significant that came out over the past year.

The year kicked off with an ominous poll about Stage 2 Meaningful Use, with implications that came to a head later with the release of Stage 3 requirements. Out of 1800 physicians polled around the beginning of the year, more than half were throwing in the towel–they were not even going to try to qualify for Stage 2 payments. Negotiations over Stage 3 of Meaningful Use were intense and fierce. A January 2015 letter from medical associations to ONC asked for more certainty around testing and certification, and mentioned the need for better data exchange (which the health field likes to call interoperability) in the C-CDA, the most popular document exchange format.

A number of expert panels asked ONC to cut back on some requirements, including public health measures and patient view-download-transmit. One major industry group asked for a delay of Stage 3 till 2019, essentially tolerating a lack of communication among EHRs. The final rules, absurdly described as a simplification, backed down on nothing from patient data access to quality measure reporting. Beth Israel CIO John Halamka–who has shuttled back and forth between his Massachusetts home and Washington, DC to advise ONC on how to achieve health IT reform–took aim at Meaningful Use and several other federal initiatives.

Another harbinger of emerging issues in health IT came in January with a speech about privacy risks in connected devices by the head of the Federal Trade Commission (not an organization we hear from often in the health IT space). The FTC is concerned about the security of recent trends in what industry analysts like to call the Internet of Things, and medical devices rank high in these risks. The speech was a lead-up to a major report issued by the FTC on protecting devices in the Internet of Things. Articles in WIRED and Bloomberg described serious security flaws. In August, John Halamka wrote own warning about medical devices, which have not yet started taking security really seriously. Smart watches are just as vulnerable as other devices.

Because so much medical innovation is happening in fast-moving software, and low-budget developers are hankering for quick and cheap ways to release their applications, in February, the FDA started to chip away at its bureaucratic gamut by releasing guidelines releasing developers from FDA regulation medical apps without impacts on treatment and apps used just to transfer data or do similarly non-transformative operations. They also released a rule for unique IDs on medical devices, a long-overdue measure that helps hospitals and researchers integrate devices into monitoring systems. Without clear and unambiguous IDs, one cannot trace which safety problems are associated with which devices. Other forms of automation may also now become possible. In September, the FDA announced a public advisory committee on devices.

Another FDA decision with a potential long-range impact was allowing 23andMe to market its genetic testing to consumers.

The Department of Health and Human Services has taken on exceedingly ambitious goals during 2015. In addition to the daunting Stage 3 of Meaningful Use, they announced a substantial increase in the use of fee-for-value, although they would still leave half of providers on the old system of doling out individual payments for individual procedures. In December, National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo announced that Health Information Exchanges (which limit themselves only to a small geographic area, or sometimes one state) would be able to exchange data throughout the country within one year. Observers immediately pointed out that the state of interoperability is not ready for this transition (and they could well have added the need for better analytics as well). HHS’s five-year plan includes the use of patient-generated and non-clinical data.

The poor state of interoperability was highlighted in an article about fees charged by EHR vendors just for setting up a connection and for each data transfer.

In the perennial search for why doctors are not exchanging patient information, attention has turned to rumors of deliberate information blocking. It’s a difficult accusation to pin down. Is information blocked by health care providers or by vendors? Does charging a fee, refusing to support a particular form of information exchange, or using a unique data format constitute information blocking? On the positive side, unnecessary imaging procedures can be reduced through information exchange.

Accountable Care Organizations are also having trouble, both because they are information-poor and because the CMS version of fee-for-value is too timid, along with other financial blows and perhaps an inability to retain patients. An August article analyzed the positives and negatives in a CMS announcement. On a large scale, fee-for-value may work. But a key component of improvement in chronic conditions is behavioral health which EHRs are also unsuited for.

Pricing and consumer choice have become a major battleground in the current health insurance business. The steep rise in health insurance deductibles and copays has been justified (somewhat retroactively) by claiming that patients should have more responsibility to control health care costs. But the reality of health care shopping points in the other direction. A report card on state price transparency laws found the situation “bleak.” Another article shows that efforts to list prices are hampered by interoperability and other problems. One personal account of a billing disaster shows the state of price transparency today, and may be dangerous to read because it could trigger traumatic memories of your own interactions with health providers and insurers. Narrow and confusing insurance networks as well as fragmented delivery of services hamper doctor shopping. You may go to a doctor who your insurance plan assures you is in their network, only to be charged outrageous out-of-network costs. Tools are often out of date overly simplistic.

In regard to the quality ratings that are supposed to allow intelligent choices to patients, A study found that four hospital rating sites have very different ratings for the same hospitals. The criteria used to rate them is inconsistent. Quality measures provided by government databases are marred by incorrect data. The American Medical Association, always disturbed by public ratings of doctors for obvious reasons, recently complained of incorrect numbers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In July, the ProPublica site offered a search service called the Surgeon Scorecard. One article summarized the many positive and negative reactions. The New England Journal of Medicine has called ratings of surgeons unreliable.

2015 was the year of the intensely watched Department of Defense upgrade to its health care system. One long article offered an in-depth examination of DoD options and their implications for the evolution of health care. Another article promoted the advantages of open-source VistA, an argument that was not persuasive enough for the DoD. Still, openness was one of the criteria sought by the DoD.

The remote delivery of information, monitoring, and treatment (which goes by the quaint term “telemedicine”) has been the subject of much discussion. Those concerned with this development can follow the links in a summary article to see the various positions of major industry players. One advocate of patient empowerment interviewed doctors to find that, contrary to common fears, they can offer email access to patients without becoming overwhelmed. In fact, they think it leads to better outcomes. (However, it still isn’t reimbursed.)

Laws permitting reimbursement for telemedicine continued to spread among the states. But a major battle shaped up around a ruling in Texas that doctors have a pre-existing face-to-face meeting with any patient whom they want to treat remotely. The spread of telemedicine depends also on reform of state licensing laws to permit practices across state lines.

Much wailing and tears welled up over the required transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10. The AMA, with some good arguments, suggested just waiting for ICD-11. But the transition cost much less than anticipated, making ICD-10 much less of a hot button, although it may be harmful to diagnosis.

Formal studies of EHR strengths and weaknesses are rare, so I’ll mention this survey finding that EHRs aid with public health but are ungainly for the sophisticated uses required for long-term, accountable patient care. Meanwhile, half of hospitals surveyed are unhappy with their EHRs’ usability and functionality and doctors are increasingly frustrated with EHRs. Nurses complained about technologies’s time demands and the eternal lack of interoperability. A HIMSS survey turned up somewhat more postive feelings.

EHRs are also expensive enough to hurt hospital balance sheets and force them to forgo other important expenditures.

Electronic health records also took a hit from ONC’s Sentinel Events program. To err, it seems, is not only human but now computer-aided. A Sentinel Event Alert indicated that more errors in health IT products should be reported, claiming that many go unreported because patient harm was avoided. The FDA started checking self-reported problems on PatientsLikeMe for adverse drug events.

The ONC reported gains in patient ability to view, download, and transmit their health information online, but found patient portals still limited. Although one article praised patient portals by Epic, Allscripts, and NextGen, an overview of studies found that patient portals are disappointing, partly because elderly patients have trouble with them. A literature review highlighted where patient portals fall short. In contrast, giving patients full access to doctors’ notes increases compliance and reduces errors. HHS’s Office of Civil Rights released rules underlining patients’ rights to access their data.

While we’re wallowing in downers, review a study questioning the value of patient-centered medical homes.

Reuters published a warning about employee wellness programs, which are nowhere near as fair or accurate as they claim to be. They are turning into just another expression of unequal power between employer and employee, with tendencies to punish sick people.

An interesting article questioned the industry narrative about the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act, saying that the industry is expanding robustly in the face of the tax. However, this tax is still a hot political issue.

Does anyone remember that Republican congressmen published an alternative health care reform plan to replace the ACA? An analysis finds both good and bad points in its approach to mandates, malpractice, and insurance coverage.

Early reports on use of Apple’s open ResearchKit suggested problems with selection bias and diversity.

An in-depth look at the use of devices to enhance mental activity examined where they might be useful or harmful.

A major genetic data mining effort by pharma companies and Britain’s National Health Service was announced. The FDA announced a site called precisionFDA for sharing resources related to genetic testing. A recent site invites people to upload health and fitness data to support research.

As data becomes more liquid and is collected by more entities, patient privacy suffers. An analysis of web sites turned up shocking practices in , even at supposedly reputable sites like WebMD. Lax security in health care networks was addressed in a Forbes article.

Of minor interest to health IT workers, but eagerly awaited by doctors, was Congress’s “doc fix” to Medicare’s sustainable growth rate formula. The bill did contain additional clauses that were called significant by a number of observers, including former National Coordinator Farzad Mostashari no less, for opening up new initiatives in interoperability, telehealth, patient monitoring, and especially fee-for-value.

Connected health took a step forward when CMS issued reimbursement guidelines for patient monitoring in the community.

A wonky but important dispute concerned whether self-insured employers should be required to report public health measures, because public health by definition needs to draw information from as wide a population as possible.

Data breaches always make lurid news, sometimes under surprising circumstances, and not always caused by health care providers. The 2015 security news was dominated by a massive breach at the Anthem health insurer.

Along with great fanfare in Scientific American for “precision medicine,” another Scientific American article covered its privacy risks.

A blog posting promoted early and intensive interactions with end users during app design.

A study found that HIT implementations hamper clinicians, but could not identify the reasons.

Natural language processing was praised for its potential for simplifying data entry, and to discover useful side effects and treatment issues.

CVS’s refusal to stock tobacco products was called “a major sea-change for public health” and part of a general trend of pharmacies toward whole care of the patient.

A long interview with FHIR leader Grahame Grieve described the progress of the project, and its the need for clinicians to take data exchange seriously. A quiet milestone was reached in October with a a production version from Cerner.

Given the frequent invocation of Uber (even more than the Cheesecake Factory) as a model for health IT innovation, it’s worth seeing the reasons that model is inapplicable.

A number of hot new sensors and devices were announced, including a tiny sensor from Intel, a device from Google to measure blood sugar and another for multiple vital signs, enhancements to Microsoft products, a temperature monitor for babies, a headset for detecting epilepsy, cheap cameras from New Zealand and MIT for doing retinal scans, a smart phone app for recognizing respiratory illnesses, a smart-phone connected device for detecting brain injuries and one for detecting cancer, a sleep-tracking ring, bed sensors, ultrasound-guided needle placement, a device for detecting pneumonia, and a pill that can track heartbeats.

The medical field isn’t making extensive use yet of data collection and analysis–or uses analytics for financial gain rather than patient care–the potential is demonstrated by many isolated success stories, including one from Johns Hopkins study using 25 patient measures to study sepsis and another from an Ontario hospital. In an intriguing peek at our possible future, IBM Watson has started to integrate patient data with its base of clinical research studies.

Frustrated enough with 2015? To end on an upbeat note, envision a future made bright by predictive analytics.