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EMR Impact on Patient Care Differs, But Doctors Never Win

Posted on July 14, 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 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.

Nearly all physicians agree that using EMRs isn’t great for their relationship with patients. But, hospital-based and office-based physicians seem to have different reactions to the problem. (Neither group is happy with their lot, but I’m sure you already guessed that much.)

The study, by researchers at Brown University and Healthcentric Advisors, is based on the open-ended answers provided by 744 doctors to a survey question: “How does using an EHR affect her interaction with patients?” (The question was posed by the Rhode Island Department of Health in 2014.)

In analyzing the responses, researchers found that office-based physicians and hospital-based physicians had different concerns about patients care and EMR use.

Office-based physicians, who typically bring their computer into the exam room, worry that staring at a computer screen will undermine the quality of their visit with the patient. “[It’s] like having someone at the dinner table texting rather than paying attention,” one doctor wrote.

Hospital-based physicians, for their part, usually do their record-keeping on EMRs based outside the exam room.  They said that record-keeping took up too much time, leaving little for direct contact with patients. Said one physician: “I now spend much less time [with] patients because I know I have hours of data entry to complete.”

To maintain their standards of patient care, physicians are doing the data entry at home rather than at work, sometimes many hours at a time. Others are taking CME classes which promise to help them integrate EMR use with patient consults in the least disruptive manner. But nobody had found any good solutions to the patient care conundrum.

Of course, we knew most of this already. This study just offers some added color to a picture we’ve already seen. Both patients and physicians are suffering under current models of EMR use, and there’s little relief on the horizon.

Yes, a few physicians said that EMRs hadn’t impacted their time with patients. This might’ve been encouraging, but this group included one physician who treated newborns and another using a scribe to handle data entry during consults.

And there were a few respondents that cited positive aspects of EMR use in patient care. For example, one hospital-based doctor noted that EMRs offered him an easy way to look at a comprehensive patient history. Some office-based physicians noted that web-based patient portals were improving their patient interactions.

But the striking thing here is that few if any physicians suggested that EMRs offered any ongoing clinical benefits. As researchers have discovered many times over, most doctors saw their EMR use as a work requirement rather than a clinical exercise. This only underscores that as they presently work, EMRs benefit administrators, not care providers.

I wish I was so smart that I’d come up with some sort of solution to this problem. I haven’t. But it doesn’t hurt to harp on the existence of the problem. We should remind ourselves over and over again that it’s time to roll out EMRs that support clinicians.

Don’t Blame Providers For Variations In EMR Use

Posted on June 20, 2014 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 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 published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has documented what we all already know  — that providers have idiosyncracies in how they use EMRs. The question that remains unanswered is whether this is a bad thing.

According to iHealthBeat, researchers dug into a massive amount of data which painted a picture of how 112 physicians and nurse practitioners working in federally qualified health care centers in New York City used their EMRs. To conduct the study, the researchers looked at 430,803 visits by 99,649 patients who came to the centers.

After analyzing the data, the study found that providers varied in several key habits when using their EMRs, including how often the updated patient problem lists, when they would respond to clinical decision support alerts, whether the appointment was with a new patient or an established one, and the use of the meaningful use objective metrics, iHealthBeat reported.

Why were providers vary so widely and how they conducted these tasks? Researchers said that there are several reasons for this variation, including the providers overall familiarity with the EMR system, the familiarity with the patient’s medical problems, and workflow differences due to staffing differences at the health centers.

According to the researchers, significant variance among providers’ EMR use suggests that it’s a good idea to measure individual level measures of usage, as such studies might improve research on quality and cost outcomes of EMR use. In other words, the study suggests that variance in EMR usage might lead to positive or negative outcomes, and that standardization — once best practices are determined — might improve outcomes.

The problem with this logic, though it sounds  good on the surface, is that providers are struggling hard enough already to develop routines which make EMRs work for them. And as with any other technology, those workarounds are going to vary depending on who you’re talking about and what they’re trying to accomplish.

I’d argue that while tracking sources of variance in EMR use might have some value in improving outcomes, it’s no excuse to force standardization in professionals’ EMR habits, as long as their overall outcomes are appropriate. What’s more, a push to standardize how providers use EMRs puts the struggle to make them workable on providers, not the vendors whose product quirks are almost certainly responsible for this dilemma.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that while this research is useful, it should raise a red flag on vendors, whose usability levels are still far from where they should be. When you give providers a highly usable, well-thought-out interface to use which suits their daily routines, then it might be time to streamline their work habits. Until then, give  them a break if you don’t want to spark a revolution.

P.S. If you’re curious about what the best thinking on EMR usability is out there, check out this list.

Ambulatory EMRs Can Raise, Lower Medical Costs Depending On Use

Posted on June 26, 2013 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 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.

For years, researchers and policymakers have been looking for the numbers which would definitively prove that there’s a decent return on investment for EMRs, or at least better articulate the impact that they do have. Here’s a look at a study which should add something interesting to the conversation.

New research has concluded that Medicaid spending may increase or decrease depending on how community health providers use ambulatory EMRs, according to a report in iHealthBeat.

The study, which was published in the Medicare and Medicaid Research Review, examined laboratory, radiology and general medical spending at three community health practices taking part.  The practices were part of a pilot program by the Massaschusetts eHealth Collaborative, in which researchers compared s pending before and after EMR implementation with  practices which largely hadn’t implemented EMRs.

Researchers concluded that there was a distinctive difference in medical spending at two of the three practices using EMRs, iHealthBeat reports. In one case, costs grew at a rate of about 2 percent less (or $41.60 per member per month) than at practices without EMRs. At the second practice, meanwhile, costs were 2.5 percent higher (or about $43.34 per member per month) than with the no-EMR comparison practices.

EMRs didn’t seem to impact radiology and laboratory costs; there were no significant differences in costs in these areas between practices using EMRs and practices without them.

All of this sounds intriguing, as we’d all like to know more about how EMRs can actually be used to cut costs — or how EMR use can be changed to avoid added costs.  The downside, however, is that the study didn’t produce this type of evidence, iHealthBeat said.

As study co-author Julia Adler-Milstein notes, the study did demonstrate that EMRs can impact ambulatory medical costs, but the effect was not consistent across communities, and the net effect cost-wise was minimal at best.  I was disappointed to read this, as I was expecting to pick up some data on specific best practices ambulatory caregivers can implement to save money using EMRs.  Guess we’ll have to wait for future research for that information!

Health It in New Zealand Vs US: A Comparison

Posted on October 24, 2011 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.

I’d been corresponding with a PR person for a story I’m doing on ambulatory exoskeletons. She dug me up on Twitter, figured I dabbled in a few things health IT and asked if I would be interested in a recently published report on how health IT influences New Zealand’s healthcare. Now, unbeknownst to her, I also have an abiding interest in all things Kiwi, having lived in Wellington for a brief bit of time, so I was curious to know what this report contained.

The press release introducing the report started with an endorsement from John D. Halamka, so that was a huge plus in its favor. It outlined things that New Zealand has done right:
– It has a population the size of Colorado, and ranks 23rd among OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, basically all of Europe, Aus and NZ, US, Canada, Mexico and industrialized nations in Asia) but is ranked number 1 or number 2 in several healthcare categories, including overall quality care delivery (92%), EMR use by doctors (97%), use of computerized patient care reminders (92%)
– Demographically similar to the US in terms of urban/rural population split (86:14 NZ, 81:19 US), Information and Communication Technology development index, has lower physician, nurse and dentist density per 10,000 (NZ: 87,4,10 resply, US: 27, 98, 16 resply) but spends far less than the US on healthcare (NZ spends 9.8 percent of its GDP, US spends about 16 percent of its GDP)

There are far too many of these interesting compare and contrast stats for me to do justice to them in this little space, so I’ll suggest you read the report in its entirety (Do not look at Table 5 if you want to avoid serious heartburn). There are some interesting case studies towards the end of the report and plenty to keep you busy reading for quite some time.

For me, the most interesting part of the report dealt with how far NZ health infrastructure has come since its national medical IT policy was implemented in 2005. New Zealand, as the report states, has a single layer of national government, low population size, making it easier to implement a standard health IT policy. However, it’s also interesting what they’ve been able to achieve infrastructurally, which is the establishment of the National Health Index, the Health Practitioner Index and a Medical Warnings System.

To those of us who associate indices with performance, the National Health “Index” seems clunkily named, and is not a measure of how healthy Kiwis are. New Zealand’s NHI is really a kind of health ID assigned to each patient who uses the country’s health and disability support services. The report says children born in New Zealand are automatically assigned an NHI at birth and about 95 percent of the population have their NHI. Where the NHI comes handy is in tracking of patient medical records. Whether a patient moves from hospital to community to private care or any combination you can think of, all EMR documentation generated along the way reference the unique NHI for the patient. The same concept applies to Health Practitioner Index, which is again a unique ID identifying every medical practitioner in a myriad of medical professions.

The Medical Warnings System is probably the most interesting piece of the New Zealand health infrastructure. It is a system containing details of all significant medical conditions associated with the patient. A flag against the NHI tells health workers that the patient has, say, a significant medical condition, or is allergic to some medicines.

Put together, this report paints us a picture of where we could take US healthcare over the next few years – from a logical way to collect patient data under one ID to a comprehensive electronics warnings system that takes the guesswork out of care. (One could argue that the American SSN serves pretty much the same purpose, but we certainly don’t have a system where records are organized by SSN, or used by health workers to communicate with one another.)

Physician EMR Use Passes 50% – Yeah Right…

Posted on January 12, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the 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 and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

The CDC recently did a survey of EMR use in doctor’s offices and they reported that EMR use rose to 50.7% in 2010. The 50.7% of physicians estimated to use EMR systems in 2010 was up from 48.3% in 2009, 42% in 2008 and 34.8% in 2007. Well, with that data, I think it’s pretty clear that they have some issues defining EMR use, no?

Here’s a paragraph from the American Medical News article on the study:

The latest CDC information on EMR use, released on Dec. 14, 2010, was based on surveys mailed to 10,301 physicians between April and July 2010. About two-thirds of physicians responded to the survey, according to the CDC. The 50.7% of physicians estimated to use such systems in 2010 was up from 48.3% in 2009, 42% in 2008 and 34.8% in 2007. The 2010 estimate is preliminary, because it relies only on the mailed responses and not answers gathered through follow-up calls. The CDC National Center for Health Statistics counted as an EMR any system that is all or partially electronic and is not used exclusively for billing.

So, from this paragraph let me provide a better conclusion: 50.7% of Physicians use some form of software in their clinic.

As most of you know, I’m not a huge fan of arguing over the definition of words, but to say that over 50% of doctors use EMR is laughable since their definition of EMR is so broad. Here’s the real details from the study on what percentage actually really use an EMR (as most people would define EMR):

According to the survey, 24.9% of office-based physicians had access to a “basic” EMR system, while only 10.1% had a “fully functional” system.

I think their definition of “fully functional” EMR system is probably too stringent. Their definition of “basic” EMR system is probably too simple. So, I’d conclude that actual EMR use is somewhere between 10% and 34.9% or 22.45% if we average the 2 numbers. Close to 25% EMR adoption feels like the right number to me, so I’m glad to see the real data supports that conclusion.

What the 50% number does indicate is that half of physicians are looking at electronic methods to improve their office. I’d project that another 25% are seriously considering the idea of implementing an EMR, but haven’t done anything yet. 75% (using my projections) of doctors interested in EMR and other technology is still a bit far from the 100% number, but considering the past history of healthcare IT I’ll say that’s progress.