Who is Adopting EHRs and Why: ONC Turns up Some Surprises

Posted on December 15, 2014 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.

A high-level view of the direction being taken by electronic health records in the U.S. comes from a recent data brief released by the Office of the National Coordinator. Their survey of physician motivations for adopting EHRs turns up some puzzling and unexpected findings. I’ll look at three issues in this article: the importance of Meaningful Use incentives and penalties, the role of information exchange, and who is or is not adopting EHRs.

Incentives and Penalties
The impact of the Meaningful Use bribes–sorry, I meant incentive payments–in the HITECH act are legendary: they touched off a mad rush to adopt technology that had previously aroused only tepid interest among most physicians, because they found the EHRs outrageously expensive, saw no advantage to their use, or just didn’t want to leave the comfort zone of pen and paper. The dramatic outcome of Stage 1, for instance, can be seen in the first chart of this PDF.

This month’s data brief reconfirms that incentives and penalties played a critical role during the period that Meaningful Use has been in play. In the brief’s Figure 3, incentives and penalties topped the list of reasons for adopting records, with nothing else coming even close (although the list was oddly chosen, leaving out credible reasons such as “EHRs are useful”).

The outsized role payments play is both strange and worrisome. Strange, because the typical $15,000 paid per physician doesn’t even start to cover the costs of converting from paper to an EHR, or even from one EHR to another. Worrisome, because the escalator (a favorite metaphor of former National Coordinator David Blumenthal) on which payments put physicians is leveling off. Funding in the HITECH act ends after Stage 3, and even those payments will be scrutinized by the incoming budget-conscious Congress.

In addition, Stage 2 attestations have been dismally low. Critics throughout the industry, smelling blood, have swooped in to call for scaling back, to suggest that meaningful use provisions be eased or weakened, or just to ask for a more concentrated focus on the key goal of interoperability.

The ONC knows full well that they have to cut back expectations as payments dry up, although penalties from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services can still provide some leverage. Already, the recent House budget has level-funded the ONC for next year. Last summer’s reorganization of the ONC was driven by the new reality. Recent initiatives at the ONC show a stronger zeal for creating and urging the adoption of standards, which would be consistent with the need to find a role appropriate to lean times.

Health Information Exchange
I am also puzzled by the emphasis this month’s data brief puts on health information exchange. Rationally speaking, it would make perfect sense for physicians to ramp up and streamline the sharing of patient data–that’s exactly what all the health care reformers are demanding that they do. Why should somebody ask a patient to expose himself to unnecessary radiation because an X-Ray hasn’t been sent over, or try to treat someone after surgery without knowing the discharge plan?

Actually, most physicians would. That’s how they have been operating for decades. Numerous articles find that most physicians don’t see the value of information exchange, and can profit from their ignorance of previous tests and treatments the patient has received.

And that’s probably why, after taking hundreds of millions of dollars from governments, the heavy-weight institutions called Health Information Exchanges have repeatedly thrown in the towel or been left gasping for breath. At least two generations of HIEs have come and gone, and the trade press is still searching for their value.

So I’m left scratching my head and asking: if doctors adopt EHRs for information exchange, are they getting what they paid for? Redemption may have arrived through the Direct project, an ONC-sponsored standard for a low-cost, relatively frictionless form of data exchange. Although the original goal was to make HIE as simple as email, the infrastructure required to protect privacy imposes more of a technical burden. So the ONC envisioned a network of Health Information Service Provider (HISP) organizations to play the role of middleman, and a number are now operating. According to Julie Maas of EMR Direct, nearly half a million people were using Direct in July 2014, and the number is expected to double the next time statistics are collected next February.

So far, although isolated studies have shown that HIEs improve outcomes and reduce costs, we haven’t seen these effects nationwide.

What Hinders Adoption
Some of the most intriguing statistics in the data brief concern who is adopting EHRs and what holds back others from doing so. The main dividing line is simply size: most big organizations have EHRs and most small ones don’t.

I have explored earlier the pressures of health care reform on small providers and the incentives to merge. Health care technology is a factor in the consolidation we’re seeing around the country. And we should probabaly look forward to more.

Americans have trouble feeling good about consolidation in any field. We’re nostalgic for small-town proprietors like the pharmacist in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We forget that the pharmacist in that movie nearly killed someone by filling a prescription incorrectly. In real life, large organizations can pursue quality in a host of ways unavailable to individuals.

One interesting finding in the data brief is that rural providers are adopting EHRs at the same rate as urban ones. So we can discard any stereotypes of country hick doctors letting teenagers set up the security on their PCs.

Lack of staff and lack of support are, however, major barriers to adoption. This is the last perplexing question I take from the data brief. Certainly, it can be hard to get support for choosing an EHR in the first place. (The Meaningful Use program set up Regional Extension Centers to partially fill the gap.) But after spending millions to install an EHR, aren’t clinicians getting support from the vendors?

Support apparently is not part of the package. Reports from the field tell me that vendors install the software, provide a few hours of training, and tip their hats good-bye. This is poetic justice toward physicians, who for decades have sent patients out weak and groggy with a prescription and a discharge sheet. Smart organizations set aside a major percentage of their EHR funding to training and support–but not everybody knows how to do this or has grasped the need for ongoing support.

I certainly changed some of my opinions about the adoption of EHRs after reading the ONC data brief. But the statistics don’t quite add up. We could use some more background in order to understand how to continue making progress.