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Did Meaningful Use Really Turn EMRs Into A Commodity?

Posted on July 12, 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.

Not long ago, I had a nice email exchange with a sales manager with one of the top ambulatory EMR vendors.  He had written to comment on “The EMR Vendor’s Dilemma,” a piece I wrote about the difficult choices such vendors face in staying just slightly ahead of the market.

In our correspondence, he argued that Meaningful Use (MU) had led customers to see EMRs as commodities. I think he meant that MU sucked the innovation out of EMR development.

After reflecting on his comments, I realized that I didn’t quite agree that EMRs had become a commodity item. Though the MU program obviously relied on the use of commoditized, certified EMR technology, I’d argue that the industry has simply grown around that obstacle.

If anything, I’d argue that MU has actually sparked greater innovation in EMR development. Follow me for a minute here.

Consider the early stages of the EMR market. At the outset, say, in the 50s, there were a few innovators who figured out that medical processes could be automated, and built out versions of their ideas. However, there was essentially no market for such systems, so those who developed them had no incentive to keep reinventing them.

Over time, a few select healthcare providers developed platforms which had the general outline EMRs would later have, and vendors like Epic began selling packaged EMR systems. These emerging systems began to leverage powerful databases and connect with increasingly powerful front-end systems available to clinicians. The design for overall EMR architecture was still up for grabs, but some consensus was building on what its core was.

Eventually, the feds decided that it was time for mass EMR adoption, the Meaningful Use program came along. MU certification set some baselines standards for EMR vendors, leaving little practical debate as to what an EMR’s working parts were. Sure, at least at first, these requirements bled a lot of experimentation out of the market, and certainly discouraged wide-ranging innovation to a degree. But it also set the stage for an explosion of ideas.

Because the truth is, having a dull, standardized baseline that defines a product can be liberating. Having a basic outline to work with frees up energy and resources for use in innovating at the edges. Who wants to keep figuring out what the product is? There’s far more upside in, say, creating modules that help providers tackle their unique problems.

In other words, while commoditization solves one (less interesting) set of problems, it also lets vendors focus on the high-level solutions that arguably have the most potential to help providers.

That’s certainly been the case when an industry agrees on a technology specification set such as, say, the 802.11 and 802.11x standards for wireless LANs. I doubt Wi-Fi tech would be ubiquitous today if the IEEE hadn’t codified these standards. Yes, working from technical specs is different than building complex systems to meet multi-layered requirements, but I’d argue that the principle still stands.

All told, I think the feds did EMR vendors a favor when they created Meaningful Use EMR certification standards. I doubt the vendors could have found common ground any other way.

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.

EMR Workflow, AI, and Recognizing Innovation – Charles Webster, MD Edition

Posted on August 25, 2013 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Uhh…I think it’s more than safe to say that Dr. Webster has a rep when it comes to EMR workflow. Consider this edition of tweets my ode to his passion.


I love that the idea of Smart EHR is spreading. I think it’s a really important one. I’m really intrigued by any new interfaces that incorporate AI. Thinking about the possibilities of what AI can do to a user interface is both scary and exciting. Although, I’m mostly excited.


Makes me wonder how a committee would do with EMR workflow. Innovation does rarely come from committees. This is a really interesting topic since most hospitals are dominated by committees. Are we missing out on a lot of innovation in our hospitals because of this?

101 Tips to Make Your EMR and EHR More Useful – EHR Tips 66-70

Posted on August 8, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Time for the second entry covering Shawn Riley’s list of 101 Tips to Make your EMR and EHR More Useful. I hope you’re enjoying the series.

70. Hard coded work flows CAN be your friend
EMR vendors are constantly playing the game of out of the box functionality versus unlimited workflow design. This is one way to look at hard coded work flows. Sometimes they have benefits since it’s one less thing that you have to configure on your system.

The other way to look at the above EMR tip is when it comes to reporting. Often if you’ve customized a workflow in your EMR, then you lose out on the benefit of the reporting that’s available with a hard coded work flow. Sometimes you can get the benefit of both, but some advanced reports really benefit from a hard coded work flow.

69. Social Media integration – the way business is done today
No EMR system has really deep social media integration….yet!? Although, it’s worth checking with your EHR vendor to see their views of the future of social media integration. Especially if you’re in a market that has a lot of physicians. You can be sure that future patients will want some sort of social media integration as part of their visit.

68. Determine how the EMR vendor encourages innovation
This EMR tip can be taken a number of different ways. The first is how does your EMR vendor innovate internally. Take a look at their last 3-5 release cycles to get an idea of how quickly they release features and how innovative those features are. It will tell you a lot about future releases of their EHR software.

The second way to take this is by asking the question, how do they take feedback and innovation from their community? Do they have an open API that would allow you (or some developer you pay) to be able to extend their EHR functionality? If you’re someone who likes to tinker with your practice, then an open API that will let you do that would be essential.

67. Determine how innovation is actually put into the practice
This EMR tip highlights the subtle difference between an EHR vendor that talks the talk and the EHR vendor that walks the walk. Every time your EHR vendor says, “That feature will be in the next release.” a red flag should go up in your mind. Maybe this company thinks and talks big, but can’t actually perform big. Although, age of the EHR vendor should play some part in this evaluation as well.

66. Is the patient portal comprehensive
Meaningful Use has almost made patient portals a requirement. It’s hard to say exactly what future meaningful use stages will require, but I won’t be surprised if a patient portal plays a large part in the future of healthcare. Plus, the new digital generation is going to be very interested in using a patient portal. You’ll want to make sure your EHR vendor is ready for both of these trends.

If you want to see my analysis of the other 101 EMR and EHR tips, I’ll be updating this page with my 101 EMR and EHR tips analysis. So, click on that link to see the other EMR tips.

Medical Care and Primary Care without Insurance Allows Technology to Flourish

Posted on June 30, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I’ve previously posted that I believe the real EMR innovation will likely have to come together with healthcare innovation. The basic premise being that our current insurance reimbursement system is a weight on the backs of EMR software. The insurance requirements cause much of the unwieldy interfaces that are put out by EMR software and insurance requirements and limitations are a huge limiter on the technology innovation that could occur in healthcare.

Imagine how much more streamlined the EMR interface could be if EMR companies worried about patient care and not reimbursement. Imagine the new technologies that would be implemented if you weren’t so worried about the office visit reimbursement model we have today.

This premise is why I was so intrigued by this post on the popular Tech Startup blog, Techcrunch, called “The Most Important Organization in Silicon Valley That No One Has Heard About.” In the article, Dr. Samir Qamar has been putting together a different model for healthcare. “For only $49 per month and $10 per visit, MedLion is able to provide high quality medicine at a price point nearly any family can afford.”

How is he able to do this? Here’s a quote for part of how he’s able to accomplish it:

Part of MedLion’s value proposition has been availability to its patient base. Like many direct primary care practices, they find more than half of their patient interaction is via electronic means, as they aren’t forced by reimbursement rules to have a patient come to their office for something that could be done simply over phone or email. We want to be available for our patients whether they are in the Bay Area, Bali or Boise.”

I’m not sure if Dr. Qamar has found all the healthcare Innovation secret sauce, but I’m grateful for pioneering entrepreneurs like Dr. Qamar that are willing to try something different. Plus, there’s no better place for the application of technology than in these new models for healthcare. It’s exciting to consider what technology could really do when it’s not shackled by the 100 pound gorilla.