Is EMR a Four-Letter Word? You decide

Posted on January 23, 2012 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

For quite some time now, I’ve nursed my own doubts about:
– how effective EMRs are (disastrous in the short term, long term they’re supposed to make life easier, but we haven’t seen any evidence of that yet)
– why physicians are being paid to implement something that makes logical sense (you need something to nudge people out of status quo. And probably in the government’s thinking, what better use for taxpayer dollars, right?)

I came upon this blogpost, provocatively titled Why EMR is a four-letter word to most physicians. Adam Sharp, Par8o (“pareto”, not “par 80”) founder references this post from the Healthcare Blog. The discrepancy in the rates between adoption of any EMR is mind-boggling. It was projected to be close to 56.9% in 2010, vs. adoption of a fully functional EMR (projected to be close to 10.1% in 2010). (I’m not using the 2011 rates because the rates for fully functional EMR adoption in 2011 are not listed).

A reason Sharp gives for incentives and threats of decreased payment are “the industry and physicians have known for years that EMRs do not improve productivity and that it is highly questionable that EMRs lead to better patient outcomes”. While I would agree that in the short term, there is decreased productivity, I’m not so sure you can dismiss there is no productivity increase over the long term. This report about a UC Davis study for example, shows that the loss of productivity was just one month for internal medicine, and that productivity increased to pre-EMR implementation levels in the next six months. The not-so-good news is that productivity levels declined for pediatricians and family practices.

I interpret these findings like this: for specialties where there is loss of productivity, sure, the whole exercise needs a rethink. But in cases where your productivity is at par with your pre-EHR levels, I think there is a hidden benefit that detractors are more than willing to gloss over – the availability of patient data. Data is the holy grail – it’s up to us to figure out whether and how we use it.

Sharp also imagines some doomsday scenarios – of EMR vendors with uncanny abilities to do as they please.

“The goal of EMRs is to wrestle control of healthcare away from the doctor-patient relationship into the hands of third parties who can then implement their policies….by simply removing a button or an option in the EMR.”

Maybe I’m turning turncoat here and letting you guys in on the best kept secret of the IT industry, but every vendor I’ve worked for, past and present, figuratively quakes in his IT boots when it comes to contract renewal. Even for COTS products, vendors actually customize things here and there for customers, till you have 25 versions of the same code, all just to keep their customers happy and paying. While I’m pretty sure there are rogue vendors who can give you the best EMR nightmares money can buy, I also do think customers can, and do, help rein in errant ideas. In other words, vendors can’t simply remove buttons and options or randomly start charging you for stuff, not unless you let it happen. And you, the customer, hold the purse strings, ergo YOU, not the vendor, call the shots.

I don’t quite find myself agreeing with the cynical conclusion of the post which is that the point of EMRs is to wrest control away from doctors and patients into the hands of third parties who wish to regulate choice and eligibility. But there’s plenty there that’s food for thought. Go check it out.