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Practice’s EMR Implementation Drove Up Costs For Six Months

Posted on September 28, 2018 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.

Everyone knows that providers incur EMR-related costs until well after it is implemented. According to a new study, in fact, one medical incurred higher costs for six months after its implementation.

The study, which appeared recently in The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, calculated the impact of an EMR implementation on labor costs and productivity at an outpatient orthopedic clinic. The researchers conducting the study used time-driven activity-based costing to estimate EMR-related expenses.

To conduct the study, the research team timed 143 patients prospectively throughout their clinic visit, both before implementation of the hospital system-wide EMR and then again at two months, six months and two years after the implementation.

The researchers found that after the first two months, total labor costs per patient had shot up from $36.88 to $46.04.

One reason for the higher costs was a growth in the amount of time attending surgeons spent per patient, which went up from 9.38 to 10.97 minutes, increasing surgeon cost from $21 to $27.01. In addition, certified medical assistants for spending what time assessing patients, with the time spent almost tripling from 3.42 to 9.1 minutes.

On top of all of this, providers were spending more than twice as much time documenting patient encounters as they had before, up to 7.6 minutes from 3.3 minutes prior to the implementation.

By the six-month mark, however, labor costs per patient had largely returned to their previous levels, settling at $38.75 compared with $36.88 prior to the installation, and expense which remain at the same level when calculated at two years after the EMR implementation.

However, providers were spending even more time documenting encounters than they had before the rolling, with time climbing to 8.43 minutes or roughly 5 minutes more than prior to the introduction of the EMR. Not only that, providers were spending less time interacting with patients, falling to 10.03 as compared with 14.65 minutes in the past.

Sadly, we might have been able to predict this outcome. Clearly, the clinic’s EMR implementation has burdened its providers and further minimized time the providers spend with their patients. This, unfortunately, is more of a rule than an exception.

So why did the ortho practice even bother? It’s hard to say. The study doesn’t say what the practice hoped to accomplish by putting the EMR in place, or whether it met those goals. Given that the system was still in place after two years one would hope that it was providing some form of value.

Truthfully, I’d much rather have learned about what the clinic actually got for its investment than how long it took to get everyone trained up and using it. To be fair, though, this data might have some relevance to the hospital systems that manage a broad spectrum of medical practices, and that’s worth something.

It’s Time To Work Together On Technology Research

Posted on September 12, 2018 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.

Bloggers like myself see a lot of data on the uptake of emerging technologies. My biggest sources are market research firms, which typically provide the 10,000-foot view of the technology landscape and broad changes the new toys might work in the healthcare industry. I also get a chance to read some great academic research, primarily papers focused on niche issues within a subset of health IT.

I’m always curious to see which new technologies and applications are rising to the top, and I’m also intrigued by developments in emerging sub-disciplines such as blockchain for patient data security.

However, I’d argue that if we’re going to take the next hill, health IT players need to balance research on long-term adoption trends with a better understanding of how clinicians actually use new technologies. Currently, we veer between the micro and macro view without looking at trends in a practical manner.

Let’s consider the following information I gathered from a recent report from market research firm Reaction Data.   According to the report, which tabulated responses from a survey of about 100 healthcare leaders, five technologies seem to top the charts as being set to work changes in healthcare.

The list is topped by telemedicine, which was cited by 29% of respondents, followed by artificial intelligence (20%), interoperability (15%), data analytics (13%) and mobile data (11%).

While this data may be useful to leaders of large organizations in making mid- to long-range plans, it doesn’t offer a lot of direction as to how clinicians will actually use the stuff. This may not be a fatal flaw, as it is important to have some idea what trends are headed, but it doesn’t do much to help with tactical planning.

On the flip side, consider a paper recently published by a researcher with Google Brain, the AI team within Google. The paper, by Google software engineer Peter Lui, describes a scheme in which providers could use AI technology to speed their patient documentation process.

Lui’s paper describes how AI might predict what a clinician will say in patient notes by digging into the content of prior notes on that patient. This would allow it to help doctors compose current notes on the fly.  While Lui seems to have found a way to make this work in principle, it’s still not clear how effective his scheme would be if put into day-to-day use.

I’m well aware that figuring out how to solve a problem is the work of vendors more than researchers. I also know that vendors may not be suited to look at the big picture in the way of outside market researcher firms can, or to conduct the kind of small studies the fuel academic research.

However, I think we’re at a moment in health IT that demands high-level research collaboration between all of the stakeholders involved.  I truly hate the word “disruptive” by this point, but I wouldn’t know how else to describe options like blockchain or AI. It’s worth breaking down a bunch of silos to make all of these exciting new pieces fit together.

Cloud-Based EHRs With Analytics Options Popular With Larger Physician Groups

Posted on April 20, 2018 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.

Ever wonder what large medical practices want from the EHRs these days? According to one study, the answer is “cloud-based systems with all the bells and whistles.”

Black Book Research just completed a six-month client satisfaction poll questioning members of large practices about their EHR preferences. The survey collected data from roughly 19,000 EHR users.

According to the survey, 30% of practices with more than 11 clinicians expect to replace their current EHR by 2021, primarily because they want a more customizable system. It’s not clear whether they are sure yet which vendors offer the best customization options, though it’s likely we’ll hear more about this soon enough.

Among groups planning an EHR replacement, what appealed to them most (with 93% ranking it as their preferred option) was cloud-based mobile solutions offering an array of analytical options. They’re looking for on-demand data and actionable insights into financial performance, compliance tracking and tools to manage contractual quality goals. Other popular features included telehealth/virtual support (87%) and speech recognition solutions for hands-free data entry (82%).

Among those practices that weren’t prepared for an EHR replacement, it seems that some are waiting to see how internal changes within Practice Fusion and eClinicalWorks play out. That’s not surprising given that both vendors boasted an over 93% customer loyalty level for Q1 2018.

The picture for practices with less than six or fewer physicians is considerably different, which shouldn’t surprise anybody given their lack of capital and staff time.  In many cases, these smaller practices haven’t optimized the EHRs they have in place, with many failing to use secure messaging, decision support and electronic data sharing or leverage tools that increase patient engagement.

Large practices and smaller ones do have a few things in common. Ninety-three percent of all sized medical and surgical practices using an installed, functional EHR system are using three basic EHR tools either frequently or always, specifically data repositories, order entry and results review.

On the other hand, few small to midsize groups use advanced features such as electronic messaging, clinical decision support, data sharing, patient engagement tools or interoperability support. Again, this is a world apart from the higher-end IT options the larger practices crave.

For the time being, the smaller practices may be able to hold their own. That being said, other surveys by Black Book suggest that the less-digitalized practices won’t be able to stay that way for long, at least if they want to keep the practice thriving.

A related 2018 Black Book survey of healthcare consumers concluded that 91% of patients under 50 prefer to work with digitally-based practices, especially practices that offer conductivity with other providers and modern portals giving them easy access to the health data via both phones and other devices.

Three-Quarters Of Medical Practices Aren’t Getting Full Value From Their EHR

Posted on February 6, 2018 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.

Given how many EHRs seem to feature position-hostile designs, it’s hardly surprising to learn that many medical practices aren’t getting the most from them. However, I was taken aback by how deep this underutilization seems to run.

A new study appearing in the American Journal of Managed Care has concluded that a whopping 73% of practices weren’t using their EHRs to the fullest extent and that another 40% make little or no use of health IT functions. Even given the obstacles to using EHRs, this seems like a big waste of money, time and potential, doesn’t it?

To conduct the study, researchers used data from a relevant HIMSS Analytics survey. The data included responses from 30,123 ambulatory practices with an operational EHR in place, most with fewer than seven affiliated doctors in place.  Researchers sifted the data to determine the extent to which these practices were using EHR-based health IT functionalities.

Of course, some medical groups were on top of their game. Researchers found that 26.6% of practices could be classified as health IT super-users that squeezed every benefit from their systems. As you might guess, the likelihood that a practice was a super-user grew as the number of affiliate doctors increased, as well as when the practice was located in a metropolitan area. But far more groups seem to have fallen well behind the leaders.

According to the data, among practices using CPOE tools, only 36% used them for more than 75% of orders. Also, while groups commonly used basic functions such as data storage, with 100% of practices storing transcribed reports electronically and 61% using the EHR for nursing documentation, most lagged in other areas. For example, only 29% used tools allowing them to find and modified orders for all patients on a specific medication.

To address this gap, researchers say, policymakers should consider how to address the barriers PCP and specialist practices face in using the health IT tools more fully. Understanding how this disparity has emerged and how to address it is critical, they suggest, as less sophisticated use of EHRs may have an impact on care quality and also on groups’ ability to participate in community efforts such as HIEs.

The truth is, if the under-utilizer practices don’t get some kind of help or support, it’s unlikely they’ll step up their use of EHR functions. Particularly if they’ve had the system in place for a while, the workflow is baked into the system and physician habits established. Maybe the pressure to provide value-based care will do the trick, but it remains to be seen. This is a problem that won’t go away quickly.

Healthcare IT Solutions Must Be Seamless

Posted on January 23, 2018 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.

Ever since I saw this tweet from Shereese, I’ve been pondering on how important the concept of seamless technology is to healthcare:

Shereese is spot on that for patients to become users of healthcare technology solutions and health applications, they need to provide a seamless experience that works with their lives. This is why so many Fitbit like wearable solutions have been abandoned. Those solutions didn’t fit seamlessly into their lives. Pair that with many of them not being very clinically relevant and it’s no wonder that wearable use falls off a cliff.

Turns out that the same is true for providers. Providers want whatever healthcare IT application they’re using to fit seamlessly into their workflow. The problem with many EHR is that they didn’t fit seamlessly into a provider’s workflow. Why then did they adopt them? The answer is simple: $36 billion of stimulus money. If that incentive didn’t happen, most doctors would still not be using an EHR. At least not until one figured out how to fit into their practice seamlessly.

I don’t want to let doctors completely off the hook. When implementing an EHR or any healthcare IT solution, some adaption is good. Being obstinant about your current workflow just because “it’s the way you’ve always done it” is a mistake as well. Technology can enable new workflows that wouldn’t have been possible before implementing technology into your organization. So, some change is good when technology enables something new and better.

Like most things in life. It’s all about balance. The technology needs to keep improving so that it can fit seamlessly into our personal lives as patients and physician’s work lives. However, we also need to be open to change when it means improvement over our current approach. Add in the need to provide clear benefits (see my post yesterday) and you have a recipe for success. Without these things and you have a disaster.

Ophthalmologists Worry That EHRs Decrease Productivity, Boost Costs

Posted on January 16, 2018 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.

A new study has concluded that while EHR use among ophthalmologists has shot up over the last decade, most of these doctors see the systems as lowering their productivity and increasing their office costs, according to a survey published in JAMA Ophthalmology.

To conduct the study, the researchers emailed surveys to 2,000 ophthalmologists between 2015 and 2016. The 2,000 respondents, whose responses were anonymous, were chosen out of more than 18,000 active US members of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The researchers involved found that the EHR adoption rate for ophthalmologists, which is about 72.1%, was similar to rates among other specialties. Nonetheless, it’s a big jump from 2011, when only 47% of the 492 respondents reported using EHRs in their practice.

Most respondents were devoted solely to ophthalmology and had an average of 22 years of practice. They had an average of 5.3 years of EHR use, but nearly the entire group had previously used paper records. Eighty-eight percent of those currently using EHRs had been present for the transition from paper records to digital ones, researchers found.

Not surprisingly, given typical EHR acquisition and maintenance costs, the mean number of ophthalmologists in a given practice was higher among those with an EHR in place than practices without one. Researchers found that when practices were part of an integrated health system, a government health system, the higher the odds of their having adopted an EHR.

While the adoption rate has increased, ophthalmologists actually seem less happy with EHRs than they had been before. For example, many reported that they felt EHRs were undermining both their productivity and financial situation.

For example, more than half of respondents in 2016 reported that their patients seen per day had fallen since adopting EHRs. That’s an unfortunate change in perceptions since in 2006, more than 60% of ophthalmologists saw an increase in productivity after their EHR system was implemented.

Meanwhile, respondents were ambivalent about the impact of EHR use on revenue, with 35% reporting that revenue had remained the same after adoption, 41% a decrease and almost 9% an increase.

Despite concerns that EHRs were undercutting practice productivity, researchers reported that three previous studies of academic ophthalmology practices found no change in patient volume after EHR adoption.

There also seems to be a disconnect between what ophthalmologists think their patients want technically and what they want.  While 76% reported that their patients felt mostly positive or neutral toward EHR use, 36% of ophthalmologists would return to paper records if they had the chance.

That being said, ophthalmology practices do seem to see the benefits in keeping their EHR systems in place. For example, despite the fact that 68% saw paper documentation as faster, 53% of respondents felt their EHRs were generating net positive value.

All told, it seems that ophthalmologists’ concerns about EHR use are working themselves out. However, it also seems as though the doubts we see documented here are deeply rooted and may not go away quickly.

MedStar’s Human Factors Center: An Interview with Dr. Raj Ratwani

Posted on January 10, 2018 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com.For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manager doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst, a role he recently repeated for a Council member.

Background: Recently, I had a wide ranging interview with Dr. Raj Ratwani, Acting Center Director and Scientific Director of MedStar Health’s National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare.

The center is MedStar’s patient safety, and usability applied research arm. MedStar is the Mid Atlantic area’s largest medical facility non profit operating 10 major hospitals as well as dozens of urgent care, rehab and medical groups.

MedStar set up the center, as part of its Institute for Innovation five years ago. The Institute is an in house service of several centers that conduct research, analysis, development and education. In addition to human factors, the Institute turns MedStar staff’s ideas into commercial products, conducts professional education, encourages healthy lifestyles and develops in house software products.

The Human Factors Center’s work concentrates on medical devices, as well as creating new processes and procedures. The center’s 30 person staff features physicians, nurses, engineers, product designers, patient safety, usability and human factors specialists. The Center’s focus is on both MedStar and on improving the nation’s healthcare system with grants and contracts from AHRQ, ONC, CMS, etc., as well as many device manufacturers.

Dr. Ratwani: Dr. Ratwani’s publications are extensive and were one reason prompting my interview. I met with him in his office in the old Intelsat building along with Rachel Wynn the center’s post doctoral fellow. We covered several topics from the center’s purpose to ONC’s Meaningful Use (MU) program to the center’s examination of adverse event reporting systems.

Center’s Purpose: I started by asking him what he considered the center’s main focus? He sees the center’s mission as helping those who deliver services by reducing their distractions and errors and working more productively. He said that while the center examines software systems, devices take up the lion’s share of its time from a usability perspective.

The center works on these issues in several ways. Sometimes they just observe how users carry out a task. Other times, they may use specialized equipment such as eye tracking systems. Regardless, their aim is to aid users to reduce errors and increase accuracy. He noted how distractions can cause errors even when a user is doing something familiar. If a distraction occurs in the middle of a task, the user can forget they’ve already done a step and will needlessly repeat it. This not only takes time, but can also lead to cascading errors.

Impact: I asked him how they work with the various medical centers and asked about their track record. Being in house, he said, they have the advantage of formal ties to MedStar’s clinicians. However, he said their successes were a mixed bag. Even when there is no doubt about a change’s efficacy, its acceptance can depend on a variety of budget, logistic and personal factors.

EHR Certification: I then turned to the center’s studies of ONC’s MU vendor product certification. Under his direction, the center sent a team to eleven major EHR vendors to examine how they did their testing. Though they interviewed vendor staffs, they were unable to see testing. Within that constraint, they still found great variability in vendor’s approach. That is, even though ONC allowed vendors to choose their own definition of user centered design, vendors often strayed even from these self defined standards.

MU Program: I then asked his opinion of the MU program. He said he thought that the $40 billion spent drove EHR adoption for financial not clinical reasons. He would have preferred a more careful approach. The MU1 and MU2 programs weren’t evidence based. The program’s criteria needed more pilot and clinical studies and that interoperability and usability should have been more prominent.

Adverse Events: Our conversation then turned to the center’s approach to adverse events, that is instances involving patient safety. Ratwani is proud of a change he helped implement in Medstar’s process. Many institutions take a blame game approach to them berating and shaming those involved. MedStar treats them as teaching moments. The object is to determine root causes and how to implement change. Taking a no fault approach promotes open, candid discussions without staff fearing repercussions.

I finally asked him about his studies applying natural language processing to adverse patient safety reports. His publications in this area analyze the free text sections of adverse reporting systems. He told me they often found major themes in the report texts that the systems didn’t note. As a follow on, he described their project to manage and present the text from these systems. He explained that even though these systems capture free text, the text is so voluminous that users have a difficult time putting them to use.

My thanks to Dr. Ratwani and his staff for arranging the interview and their patience in explaining their work.
____________________________________

A word about DC’s old Intelsat building that houses the Institute. Normally, I wouldn’t comment on an office building. If you’ve seen one, etc., etc. Not so here. Built in the 1980s, it’s an example of futurist or as I prefer to call it Sci-Fi architecture and then some. The building has 14 interconnected “pods” with a façade meant to look like, well, a gargantuan satellite.

Intelsat Building

 

To reach an office, you go down long, open walkways suspended above an atrium. It’s all other unworldly. You wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Princess Leia rounded a corner. It’s not on the usual tourist routes and you can’t just walk in, but if you can wangle it, it’s worth a visit.

Intelsat Building Interior

Burnout is Overused and Under Defined

Posted on December 8, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com.For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manager doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst, a role he recently repeated for a Council member.

Recently, John hosted a #HITsm chat on using technology to fight physician burnout (Read the full transcript from the chat here). The topic’s certainly timely, and it got me to wondering just what is physician burnout. Now, the simple answer is fatigue. However, when I started to look around for studies and insights, I realized that burnout is neither easily defined nor understood.

The Mayo Clinic, among others, defines it this way:

Job burnout is a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. 

So, it is fatigue plus self doubt. Well, that’s for starters. Burnout has its own literature niche and psychologists have taken several different cracks at a more definitive definition without any consensus other than it’s a form of depression, which doesn’t have to be work related.

Unsurprisingly, burnout is not in the DSM-5. It’s this lack of a clinical definition, which makes it easy to use burnout like catsup to cover a host of issues. I think this is exactly why we have so many references to physician or EHR burnout. You can use burnout to cover whatever you want.

It’s easy to find articles citing EHRs and burnout. For example, a year ago April, The Hospitalist headlined, “Research Shows Link Between EHR and Physician Burnout.” The article then flatly says, “The EHR has been identified as a major contributor to physician burnout.” However, it never cites a study to back this up.

If you track back through its references, you’ll wind up at a 2013 AMA study, “Factors Affecting Physician Professional Satisfaction and Their Implications for Patient Care, Health Systems, and Health Policy.” Developed by the Rand Corporation, it’s an extensive study of physician job satisfaction. Unfortunately, for those who cite it for EHR and burnout, it never links the two. In fact, the article never discusses the two together.

Not surprisingly, burnout has found its way into marketing. For example, DataMatrix says:

Physician burnout can be described as a public health crisis especially with the substantial increase over the last couple of years. The consequences are significant and affect the healthcare system by affecting the quality of care, health care costs and patient safety.

Their solution, of course, is to buy their transcription services.

What’s happened here is that physician work life dissatisfaction has been smushed together with burnout, which does a disservice to both. For example, Medscape recently published a study on burnout, which asked physicians about their experience. Interestingly, the choices it gave, such as low income, too many difficult patients – difficult being undefined — are all over the place.

That’s not to say that all physician burnout studies are useless. A recent study, Electronic Health Record Effects on Work-Life Balance and Burnout Within the I3 Population Collaborative, used a simple, five item scale to ask physicians how they viewed their work life. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 Single-Item Burnout Scale.

Their findings were far more nuanced than many others. EHRs played a role, but so did long hours. They found:

EHR proficiency training has been associated with improved job satisfaction and work-life balance.14 While increasing EHR proficiency may help, there are many potential reasons for physicians to spend after-hours on the EHR, including time management issues, inadequate clinic staffing, patient complexity, lack of scribes, challenges in mastering automatic dictation systems, cosigning resident notes, messaging, and preparing records for the next day. All of these issues and their impact on burnout and work-life balance are potential areas for future research.

There’s a need to back off the burnout rhetoric. Burnout’s overused and under defined. It’s a label for what may be any number of underlying issues. Subsuming these into one general, glitzy term, which lacks clinical definition trivializes serious problems. The next time you see something defined as physician or EHR burnout, you might just ask yourself, what is that again?

EHRs and Keyboarding: Is There an Answer?

Posted on November 28, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com.For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manager doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst, a role he recently repeated for a Council member.

One of the givens of EHR life is that users, especially physicians, spend excessive time keying into EHRs. The implication is that much keyboarding is due to excessive data demands, poor usability or general app cussedness. There’s no end of studies that support this. For example, a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Annals of Family Medicine found that:

Primary care physicians spend more than one-half of their workday, nearly 6 hours, interacting with the EHR during and after clinic hours. The study broke out times spent on various tasks and found, unsurprisingly, that documentation and chart review took up almost half the time.

Figure 1. Percent Physician’s Time on EHR

This study is unique among those looking at practitioners and EHRs. They note:

Although others have suggested work task categories for primary care,13 ours is the first taxonomy proposed to capture routine clinical work in EHR systems. 

They also make the point that they captured physician EHR use not total time spent with patients. Other studies have reached similar EHR use conclusions. The consensus is there too much time keyboarding and not enough time spent one to one with the patient. So, what can be done? Here, I think, are the choices:

  1. Do Nothing. Assume that this is a new world and tough it out.
  2. Use Scribes. Hire scribes to do the keyboarding for physicians.
  3. Make EHRs Easier. Improve EHRs’ usability.
  4. Make EHRs Smarter. Adapt EHRs to physician’s needs through artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
  5. Offload to Patients. Use patient apps to input data, rather than physician keyboarding.

Examining the Alternatives

 1. Do Nothing. Making no change in either the systems or practioners’ approach means accepting the current state as the new normal. It doesn’t mean that no changes will occur. Rather, that they will continue at an incremental, perhaps glacial, pace. What this says more broadly is that the focus on the keyboard, per se, is wrong. The question is not what’s going in so much as what is coming out compared to old, manual systems. For example, when PCs first became office standards, the amount of keyboarding vs. pen and paper notations went viral. PCs produced great increases in both the volume and quality of office work. This quickly became the new norm. That hasn’t happened with EHRs. There’s an assumption that the old days were better. Doing nothing acknowledges that you can’t go back. Instead, it takes a stoic approach and assumes things will get better eventually, so just hang in there.

2. Scribes. The idea of using a scribe is simple. As a doctor examines a patient, the scribe enters the details. Scribes allow the physician to offload the keyboarding to someone with medical knowledge who understands their documentation style. There is no question that scribes can decrease physician keyboarding. This approach is gaining in popularity and is marketed by various medical societies and scribe services companies.

However, using scribes brings a host of questions. How are the implemented? I think the most important question is how a scribe fits into a system’s workflow. For example, how does an attending review a scribe’s notes to determine they convey the attending’s clinical findings, etc. The attending is the responsible party and anything that degrades or muddies that oversight is a danger to patient safety. Then, there are questions about patient privacy and just how passive an actor is a scribe?

If you’re looking for dispositive answers, you’ll have to wait. There are many studies showing scribes improve physician productivity, but few about the quality of the product.

3. Make EHRs Easier. Improving EHR usability is the holy grail of health IT and about as hard to find. ONC’s usability failings are well known and ongoing, but it isn’t alone. Vendors know that usability is something they can claim without having to prove. That doesn’t mean that usability and its good friend productivity aren’t important and are grossly overdue. As AHRQ recently found:

In a review of EHR safety and usability, investigators found that the switch from paper records to EHRs led to decreases in medication errors, improved guideline adherence, and (after initial implementation) enhanced safety attitudes and job satisfaction among physicians. However, the investigators found a number of problems as well.

These included usability issues, such as poor information display, complicated screen sequences and navigation, and the mismatch between user workflow in the EHR and clinical workflow. The latter problems resulted in interruptions and distraction, which can contribute to medical error.

Additional safety hazards included data entry errors created by the use of copy-forward, copy-and-paste, and electronic signatures, lack of clarity in sources and date of information presented, alert fatigue, and other usability problems that can contribute to error. Similar findings were reported in a review of nurses’ experiences with EHR use, which highlighted the altered workflow and communication patterns created by the implementation of EHRs.

Improving EHR usability is not a metaphysical undertaking. What’s wrong and what works have been known for years. What’s lacking is both the regulatory and corporate will to do so. If all EHRs had to show their practical usability users would rejoice. Your best bet here may be to become active in your EHR vendor’s user group. You may not get direct relief, but you’ll have a place, albeit small, at the table. Otherwise, given vendor and regulatory resistance to usability improvements, you’re better off pushing for a new EHR or writing your own EHR front end.

4. Make EHRs Smarter. If Watson can outsmart Kent Jennings, can’t artificial Intelligence make EHRs smarter? As one of my old friends used to tell our city council, “The answer is a qualified yes and a qualified no.”

AI takes on many, many forms and EHRs can and do use it. Primarily, these are dictation – transcription assistant systems. They’re known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). Sort of scribes without bodies. NLP takes a text stream, either live or from a recording, parses it and puts it in the EHR in its proper place. These systems combine the freedom of dictation with AI’s ability to create clinical notes. That allows the theory maintains, a user to maintain patient contact while creating the note, thus solving the keyboarding dilemma.

 The best-known NLP system Nuance’s Dragon Medical One, etc. Several EHR vendors have integrated Dragon or similar systems into their offerings. As with most complex, technical systems, though, NLP implementation requires a full-scale tech effort. Potential barriers are implementation or training shortcuts, workflow integration, and staff commitment. NLP’s ability to quickly gather information and place it is a given. What’s not so certain is its cost-effectiveness or its product quality. In those respects, its quality and efficacy is similar to scribes and subject to much the same scrutiny.

One interesting and wholly unexpected NLP system result occurred in a study by the University of Washington Researchers. The study group used an Android app NLP dictation system, VGEENS, that captured notes at the bedside. Here’s what startled the researchers:

….Intern and resident physicians were averse to creating notes using VGEENS. When asked why this is, their answers were that they have not had experience with dictation and are reluctant to learn a new skill during their busy clinical rotations. They also commented that they are very familiar with creating notes using typing, templates, and copy paste.

The researchers forgot that medical dictation skills are just that, a skill and don’t come without training and practice. It’s a skill of older generations and that keyboarding is today’s given. 

5. Offload to Patients. I hadn’t thought of this one until I saw an article in the Harvard Business Review. In a wide-ranging review, the authors saw physicians as victims of medical overconsumption and information overload:

In our recent studies of how patients responded to the introduction of a portal allowing them to e-mail health concerns to their care team, we found that the e-mail system that was expected to substitute for face-to-face visits actually increased them. Once patients began using the portal, many started sharing health updates and personal news with their care teams.

One of their solutions is to offload data collection and monitoring to patient apps:

Mightn’t we delegate some of the screening work to patients themselves? Empowering customers with easy-to-use tools transformed the tax reporting and travel industries. While we don’t expect patients to select what blood-pressure medications to be on, we probably can offload considerable amounts of the monitoring and perhaps even some of the treatment adjustment to them. Diabetes has long been managed this way, using forms of self-care that have advanced as self-monitoring technology has improved.

This may be where we are going; however, it ignores the already crowded app field. Moreover, every app seems to have its own data protocol. Health apps are a good way to capture and incorporate health data. They may be a good way to offload physicians’ keyboarding, but health apps are a tower of protocol Babel right now. This solution is as practical as saying that the way to curb double entering data in EHRs is to just make them interoperable.

What’s an EHR User to Do?

If each current approach to reducing keyboarding has problems, they are not fatal. I think that physician keyboarding is a problem and that it is subject to amelioration, if not solution.

For example, here’s Nordic’s Joel Martin on EHR usability:

… In reality, much of this extra work is a result of expanded documentation and quality measure requirements, security needs, and staffing changes. As the healthcare industry shifts its focus to value-based reimbursement and doing more with less, physician work is increasing. That work often takes place in the EHR, but it isn’t caused by the EHR’s existence.

Blaming the EHR without optimizing its use won’t solve the problem. Instead, we should take a holistic view of the issues causing provider burnout and use the system to create efficiencies, as it’s designed to do.  

The good news is that optimizing the EHR is very doable. There are many things that can be done to make it easier for providers to complete tasks in the EHR, and thereby lower the time spent in the system.

Broadly speaking, these opportunities fall into two categories.

First, many organizations have not implemented all the time-saving features that EHR vendors have created. There are features that dramatically lower the time required to complete EHR tasks for common, simple visits (for instance, upper respiratory infections). We rarely see organizations that have implemented these features at the time of our assessments, and we’re now working with many to implement them.

In addition, individual providers are often not taking advantage of features that could save them time. When we look at provider-level data, we typically see fewer than half of providers using speed and personalization features, such as features that let them rapidly reply to messages. These features could save 20 to 30 minutes a day on their own, but we see fewer than 50 percent of providers using them.

Optimization helps physicians use the EHR the way it was intended – in real-time, alongside patient care, to drive better care, fewer mistakes, and higher engagement. Ultimately, we envision a care environment where the EHR isn’t separate from patient care, but rather another tool to provide it. 

What does that mean for scribes or NLP? Recognize they are not panaceas, but tools. The field is constantly changing. Any effort to address keyboarding should look at a range of independent studies to identify their strengths and pitfalls. Note not only the major findings but also what skills, apps, etc., they required. Then, recognize the level of effort a good implementation always requires. Finally, as UW’s researchers found, surprises are always lurking in major shake-ups.

Join us for this week’s #HITsm chat on Using Technology to Fight EHR Burnout to discuss this topic more.

Usability, Interoperability are Political Questions: We Need an EHR Users Group

Posted on October 6, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com.For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manager doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst, a role he recently repeated for a Council member.

Over the years, writers on blogs such as this and EMRandHIPAA have vented their frustration with lousy EHR usability and interoperability problems. Usability has shown no real progress unless you count all the studies showing that its shortcomings cost both time and money, drives users nuts, and endangers patient lives.

The last administration’s usability approach confused motion with progress with a slew of roadmaps, meetings and committees. It’s policies kowtowed to vendors. The current regime has gone them one better with a sort of faith based approach. They believe they can improve usability as long it doesn’t involve screens or workflow. Interoperability has seen progress, mostly bottom up, but there is still no national solution. Patient matching requires equal parts data, technique and clairvoyance.

I think the solution to these chronic problems isn’t technical, but political. That is, vendors and ONC need to have their feet put to the fire. Otherwise, in another year or five or ten we’ll be going over the same ground again and again with the same results. That is, interop will move ever so slowly and usability will fade even more from sight – if that’s possible.

So, who could bring about this change? The one group that has no organized voice: users. Administrators, hospitals, practioners, nurses and vendors have their lobbyists and associations. Not to mention telemed, app and device makers. EHR users, however, cut across each of these groups without being particularly influential in any. Some groups raise these issues; however, it’s in their context, not for users in general. This means no one speaks for common, day in day out, EHR users. They’re never at the table. They have no voice. That’s not to say there aren’t any EHR user groups. There are scads, but vendors run almost all of them.

What’s needed is a national association that represents EHR users’ interests. Until they organize and earn a place along vendors, etc., these issues won’t move. Creating a group won’t be easy. Users are widely dispersed and play many different roles. Then there is money. Users can’t afford to pony up the way vendors can. An EHR user group or association could take many forms and I don’t pretend to know which will work best. All I can do is say this:

EHR Users Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose, But Your Frustrations!