Do Vendor Business Models Discourage EMR Innovation?

Posted on April 4, 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.

Despite the ever-mounting levels of physician frustration, in some ways EMRs have changed little from their mass-market rollout. EMR interfaces are still counterintuitive, data sharing possibilities are limited, important information still lives in isolated silos and endless data entry is the rule rather than exception.

In theory, we could do better if we had a reasonable vision of what should come next. For example, I was intrigued by ideas proposed by Dr. Robert Rowley of Flow Health. He describes a model in which EMRs draw on a single, external data source which isn’t confined to any one organization. Providers would access, download and add data through a modern API.  Given such fluid access to data, providers would be able to create custom front-ends based on a collection of apps, rather than rely on a single vendor-created interface.

Unfortunately, EMR vendors are unlikely to take on a completely different approach like Rowley’s, for reasons inherent to their business model. After all, they have little reason to develop new, innovative EMRs which rely on a different data architecture. Not only that, the costs associated with developing and rolling out a completely new EMR model would probably be very high. And what company would take that chance when their existing “big iron” approach still sells?

Not only that, EMR vendors would risk alienating their customers if they stray too far off the ranch. While an innovative new platform might be attractive to some buyers, it might also be incompatible with their existing technology. And it would probably require both providers and vendors to reinvent workflows and transform their technical architecture.

Meanwhile, in addition to finding a way to pay for the technology, providers would have to figure out how to integrate their existing data into the new system, integrate the platform with its existing infrastructure, retrain the staff and clinicians and cope with reduced productivity for at least a year or two. And what would become of their big data analytics code? Their decision support modules? Even data entry could be a completely new game.

Smaller medical practices could be pushed into bankruptcy if they have to invest in yet another system. Large practices, hospitals and health systems might be able to afford the initial investment and systems integration, but the project would be long and painful. Unless they were extremely confident that it would pay off, they probably wouldn’t risk giving a revolutionary solution a try.

All that being said, there are forces in play which might push vendors to innovate more, and give providers a very strong incentive to try a new approach to patient data management. In particular, the need to improve care coordination and increase patient engagement – driven by the emergence of value-based care – is putting providers under intense pressure. If a new platform could measurably improve their odds of surviving this transition, they might be forced to adopt it.

Right now, providers who can afford to do so are buying freestanding care coordination and patient engagement tools, then integrating them into their existing EMRs. I can certainly see the benefit of doing so, as it brings important functions on board without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And these organizations aren’t forced to rethink their fundamental technical strategy.

But the truth is, this model is unlikely to serve their needs over the long term. Because it relies on existing technology, welding new functions onto old, clinicians are still forced to grappled with kludgy technology. What’s more, these solutions add another layer to a very shaky pile of cards. And it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to support data interoperability, either.

Ultimately, the healthcare industry is going to be bogged down with short-term concerns until providers and vendors come together and develop a completely new approach to health data. To succeed at changing their health IT platform, they’ll have to rethink the very definition of key issues like ease of use and free data access, care coordination, patient engagement and improved documentation.

I believe that’s going to happen, at some point, perhaps when doctors storm the executive offices of their organization with torches and pitchforks. But I truly hope providers and vendors introduce more effective data management tools than today’s EMRs without getting to that point.