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ACP Offers Recommendations On Reducing MD Administrative Overload

Posted on March 30, 2017 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 FierceHealthcare.com 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.

As everyone knows, physicians are being overwhelmed by outsized levels of administrative chores. As if dealing with insurance companies wasn’t challenging enough, in recent years EMRs have added to this burden, with clinicians doing double duty as data entry clerks after they’re seen patients.

Unfortunately, streamlining EMR use for clinical use has proven to be a major challenge. Still, there are steps healthcare organizations can take to cut down on clinicians’ administrative frustrations, according to the American College of Physicians.

The ACP’s recommendations include the following:

  1. Stakeholders responsible for imposing administrative tasks – such as payors, government and vendors – should analyze the impact of administrative tasks on physicians. If a task is found to have a negative effect on care quality, needlessly questions a clinician’s judgment or increases costs, it should be challenged, fixed or removed.
  2. If an administrative task can’t be cut, it must be reviewed, revised, aligned or streamlined to reduce stakeholders’ burden.
  3. Stakeholders should collaborate with professional societies, clinicians, patients and EMR vendors to develop performance measures that minimize needless clinician burden and integrate performance reporting and quality improvement.
  4. All key stakeholders should collaborate in reducing, streamlining, reducing and aligning clinicians’ administrative tasks by making better use of health IT.
  5. As the US healthcare system shifts to value-based payment, stakeholders should consider streamlining or eliminating duplicative administrative demands.
  6. The ACP would like to see rigorous research done on the impact of administrative tasks on healthcare quality, time and cost; on clinicians, staff and healthcare organizations; patient and family; and patient outcomes.
  7. The ACP calls for research on best practices for cutting down on clinicians’ administrative tasks within both practices and organizations. All key stakeholders, including clinician societies, payors, regulators, vendors and suppliers, should disseminate these evidence-based best practices.

It appears that even the federal government has begun to take these issues to heart. According to Modern Healthcare, late last year CMS announced a long-term initiative intended to reduce physicians’ administrative burdens.  Then-acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt said the initiative would hopefully make it a bit easier for practices to meet the requirements of the Quality Payment Program under MACRA.

But other sources of administrative frustration are likely to linger for the foreseeable future, as they’re deeply ingrained in stakeholder business processes or simply difficult to change.

For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians notes that some of the biggest aggravations and time wasters for its members include the need to get prior authorizations from health plans and outdated CMS documentation guidelines for E/M services which don’t leverage EMR capabilities. Sadly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for either of those problems to be solved.

Still, it seems some healthcare organizations want to take on the administrative overhead problem. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has launched an initiative aimed at reducing the number of computer-related tasks doctors have to perform. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, UPMC is partnering with Microsoft to minimize physicians’ need to do electronic paperwork. Executives with the two organizations say this effort should result in tools for both doctors and patients.

Exploring the Role of Clinical Documentation: a Step Toward EHRs for Learning

Posted on January 19, 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 (http://oreilly.com/) 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.

We need more clinicians weighing in on the design of the tools they use, so I was gratified to see a policy paper from the American College of Physicians about EHRs this week. In a sporadic and tentative manner, the paper recognizes that our digital tools for clinical documentation are part of a universal health care system that requires attention to workflow, care coordination, outcomes, and research needs.

The strong points of this paper include:

  • A critique of interfaces that hobble the natural thought processes of the clinician trying to record an encounter

  • A powerful call to direct record-keeping away from billing and regulatory requirements, toward better patient care

  • An endorsement of patient access to records (recommendation 6 under Clinical Documentation) and even more impressively, the incorporation of patient-generated data into clinical practice (recommendation 5 under EHR System Design)

  • A nod toward provenance (recommendation 3 under EHR System Design), which tells viewers who entered data and when, thus allowing them to judge its accuracy

Although the authors share my interests in data sharing and making data available for research, their overarching vision is of an electronic record that supports critical thinking. An EHR should permit the doctor to record ideas about a patient’s condition as naturally as they emerge from his or her head. And it should support other care-takers in making treatment decisions.

That’s a fine goal in itself, but I wish the authors also laid out a clearer vision of records within a learning health care system. Currently a popular buzzword, a learning health care system collects data from clinicians, patients, and the general population to look for evidence and correlations that can improve the delivery of health care. The learning system can determine the prevalence of health disorders in an area, pick out which people are most at risk, find out how well treatments work, etc. It is often called a “closed loop system” because it can draw on information generated from within the system to change course quickly.

So at the start of the policy paper I was disappointed to read, “The primary goal of EHR-generated documentation should be concise, history-rich notes that reflect the information gathered and are used to develop an impression, a diagnostic and/or treatment plan, and recommended follow-up.” What about supporting workflows? Facilitating continuous, integrated care such as in a patient-centered medical home? Mining data for new treatments and interventions? Interfacing with personal health and fitness devices?

Fortunately, the authors massage their initial claim by the time they reach their first policy recommendation under Clinical Documentation: “The primary purpose of clinical documentation should be to support patient care and improve clinical outcomes through enhanced communication.” The primary purpose gets even better later on: “As value-based care and accountable care models grow, the primary purpose of the EHR should remain the facilitation of seamless patient care to improve outcomes while contributing to data collection that supports necessary analyses.”

One benefit of reading this paper is its perspective on how medical records evolved to their current state. It notes a swelling over the decades in the length of notes and the time spent on them, “the increased documentation arguably not improving patient care.” Furthermore, it details how the demands of billing drove modern documentation, blaming this foremost on CMS’s “issuance of the evaluation and management (E&M) guidelines in 1995 and 1997.” I suspect that private insurers are just as culpable. In any case, the distortion of diagnosis in the pursuit of payments hasn’t worked well for either goal: 40% of diagnoses are wrongly coded.

The pressures of defensive medicine also reveal the excessively narrow view of the EHR currently as an archive rather than a resource.

The article calls for each discipline to set standards for its own documentation. I think this could help doctors use fields consistently in structured documentation. But although the authors endorse the use of macros, templates, and (with care) copy/forward, they are distinctly unfriendly toward structured data. Their distemper stems from the tendency of structured interfaces to disrupt the doctor’s thinking–the presevervation of which, remember, is their main concern–and to make him jump around from field to field in an unnatural way.

Yet the authors recognize that structured data is needed “for measurement of quality, public health reporting, research, and regulatory compliance” and state in their conclusion: “Vendors need to improve the ability of systems to capture and manage structured data.” We need structured data for our learning health care system, and we can’t wait for natural language processing to evolve to the point where it can reliably extract the necessary elements of a document. But a more generous vision could resolve the dilemma.

Certainly, current systems don’t handle structured data well. For instance, the article restates the well-known problem of redundant data entry, particularly to meet regulatory requirements, a problem that could be solved with minimally intelligent EHR processing engines. The interactive features available on modern mobile devices and web interfaces could also let the clinician enter data in any manner suited to her thinking, imposing structure as she goes, instead of forcing her into a rigid order of data entry chosen by the programmer.

Already, Modernizing Medicine claims to make structured data as easy to enter as writing in a paper chart. As I cover in another article, they are not yet a general solution, but work only with a few fields that deal with a distinct set of health conditions. The tool is a model for what we can do in the future, though.

The common problem of physicians copying observations from a previous encounter and pasting them into the current encounter is a trivial technical failure. On the web, when I want to cite material from a previous article, I don’t copy it and paste it in. I insert a hyperlink, I did in the previous paragraph. EHRs could similarly make reporting simple and accurate by linking to previous encounters where relevant.

The ACP recommendations are sensible and well-informed. If implemented by practitioners and EHR developers who keep the larger goals of health care in mind, they can help jump over the chasm between where EHRs and documentation are today, and where we need them to be.

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