Specialty-Focused EHRs Re-Entering The Picture

Posted on June 6, 2016 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.

Over time, I’ve read a great deal on whether specialist clinicians should invest in EHRs designed for their area of practice or not. One school of thought seems to be that specialists can do just fine by buying broadly-based systems and implementing practice-specific templates, a move which also offers them a longer list of EHRs from which they can choose. Another, meanwhile, is that EHRs designed for use by all clinicians can undercut practice efficiency by forcing specialist workflow into a one-size-fits-all straightjacket.

But the arguments in favor of specialized EHRs seem to be taking hold of late. According to the latest data from Black Book, specialist surgical and medical practices have been switching over to specialty-driven EHRs in overwhelming numbers during the first half of this year. Its researchers found that during the first and second quarter of 2016, 86% of the 11,300 specialty practices it surveyed were in favor of switching from generalist to specialist EHRs.

According to the research firm, 93% of specialists surveyed felt that templates available in specialty EHRs offered a substantial benefit to patients who needed individualized documentation, especially in practices that see a high volume of predictable diagnoses.

If that’s the case, why did so many specialists start out with generalized EHRs?  Eighty-nine percent of respondents said that they bought the non-specialist EHR they had because they were focused on meeting Meaningful Use deadlines, which left them too little time to vet their original EHR vendor sufficiently.

Lately, however, specialist practices have decided that generic EHRs just aren’t workable, Black Book found. Nearly all respondents (92%) said that given their workflow needs, they could not afford to spend time need to shape all-purpose systems to their needs. When they switched over to purchasing a specialty-driven EHR, on the other hand, specialists found it much easier to support ultra-specific practice needs and generate revenue, Black Book reported.

That being said, specialists also switched from generalized EHRs to practice-specific systems for reasons other than clinical efficiency. Black Book found that 29% of specialists make the change because they felt their current, generic EHR was not achieving market success, raising the possibility that the vendor would not be able to support their growth and might not even be stable enough to trust.

Specialists may also be switching over because the systems serving their clinical niche have improved. Black Book researchers note that back in 2010, 80% of specialist physicians felt that specialized EHRs were not configurable or flexible enough to meet their needs. So it’s no surprise that they chose to go to with more robust multi-use and primary care systems, argues Black Book’s Doug Brown.

Now, however, specialized EHRs perform much better, it seems. In particular, improvements in implementations, updates, usability and customization have boosted satisfaction of specialist EHRs from 13% meeting or exceeding expectations in 2012 to 84% in the second quarter of 2016.

Still, practices that buy specialty EHRs do make some significant trade-offs, researchers said. Specifically, 88% of specialists said they were concerned about a lack of interoperability with other providers, particularly inpatient facilities. Respondents reported that specialty-specific EHRs aren’t fitting well within hospital network and regional health information exchanges, imposing a considerable disadvantage over large multispecialty EHRs.

And not surprisingly, investing in a replacement specialty EHR has proven to be a financial burden for specialist practices, Black Book concluded. Forty-eight percent of all specialty practices switching EHRs between June 2014 and April 2016 said that making such investment has put the practice in an unstable financial position, the research firm found.

My general sense from reading this research is that specialist practices have good reasons to replace their generalized EHR with a specialist EHR these days, as such products appear to have matured greatly in recent years. However, these practices had better be ready to deploy their new systems quickly and effectively, or the financial problems they’ll inherit will outweigh the benefits of the switchover.