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HIMSS Puts Optimistic Spin On EMR Value Data

Posted on February 5, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

After several years of EMR deployment, one would think that the EMR value proposition had been pretty well established. But the truth is, the financial and clinical return on EMRs still seems to be in question, at least where some aspects of their functioning are concerned.

That, at least, is what I took from the recent HIMSS “Value of Health IT Survey”  released earlier this month. After all, you don’t see Ford releasing a “Value of Cars Survey,” because the value of a car has been pretty much understood since the first ones rolled off of the assembly line more than a century ago.

Industry-wide, the evidence for the value of EMRs is still mixed. At minimum, the value proposition for EMRs is a remarkably tough case to make considering how many billions have been spent on buying, implementing and maintaining them. It’s little surprise that in a recent survey of CHIME members, 71% of respondents said that their top priority for the next 12 months was to realize more value from their EMR investment. That certainly implies that they’re not happy with their EMR’s value prop as it exists.

So, on to the HIMSS survey. To do the research, HIMSS reached out to 52 executives, drawn exclusively from either HIMSS Analytics EMRAM Stage 6 or 7, or Davies Award winning hospitals. In other words, these respondents represent the creme de la creme of EMR implementors, at least as HIMSS measures such things.

HIMSS researchers measured HIT value perceptions among this elite group by sorting responses into one of five areas: Satisfaction, Treatment/Clinical, Electronic Information/Data, Patient Engagement and Population Management and Savings.

HIMSS’ topline conclusion — its success metric, if you will — is that 88 percent of execs reported at least one positive outcome from their EMR. The biggest area of success was in the Treatment/Clinical area, with quality performance of the clinical staff being cited by 83% of respondents. Another area that scored high was savings, with 81% reporting that they’d seen some benefits, primarily in coding accuracy, days in accounts receivable and transcription costs.

On the other end of the scale, execs had to admit that few of their clinical staffers are satisfied with their EMRs. Only 29% of execs said that their EMR had increased physician satisfaction, and less than half (44%) said their nurses were more satisfied. If that isn’t a red flag I don’t know what is.

Admittedly, there are positive results here, but you have to consider the broader context for this study. We’re talking about a piece of software that cost organizations tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, upon which many of their current and future plans rest. If I told you that my new car’s engine worked and the wheels turned, but that the brakes were dodgy, fuel economy abysmal and the suspension bumpy, wouldn’t you wonder whether I should have bought it in the first place?

Are You Prepared For Healthcare Ransomware?

Posted on February 3, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Earlier this month, a Texas hospital was hit with a particularly loathsome virus.  Leaders at Mount Pleasant, Tx.-based Titus Regional Medical Center found out on January 15 that a “ransomware” virus had encrypted files on several of the medical center’s database servers, blocking access to EMR data as well as the ability to enter data into the system.

In this kind of attack, the malware author demands a financial ransom to be paid for freeing up the data. TRMC didn’t disclose how much money the attacker(s) demanded, but it may have been an immense sum, because the hospital apparently thought that bringing in pricey security consultants and enduring several days of downtime was preferable to paying up. Although, they also probably realized the slippery slope of paying the ransom and also there’s no guarantee those receiving the ransom money will actually permanently fix the problem.

It would be nice to think that this was just a passing fad, but researchers suggest that it’s not. In fact, US victims of ransomware reported losses of more than $18 million in 14 months, according to an FBI report issued in June.

According to one news report, the average ransomware demand is about $300 per consumer. The amount demanded goes up, however, when business or government organizations are involved. For example, when a series of small police departments in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Tennessee were hit with a ransomware attack tying up their key databases, they ended up paying between $500 to $750 to get back access to their data. One can only imagine what a savvy intruder familiar with the life-and-death demand for health information would charge to free up an EMR database or laboratory information system data store.

But the threat isn’t just to enterprise assets. Not only are hospital enterprise network attacks via ransomware likely to increase, these exploits could take place via wearables or medical devices in 2016, according to technology analyst firm Forrester Research. Such attacks don’t just use medical devices to reach databases; Forrester predicts that some ransomware attacks will disable the medical devices themselves.

Given how important mobile technology has become to healthcare, it’s worth noting that ransomware is increasingly targeting mobile devices as well. For example, a recent strain of Android virus known as Lockdroid ransomware is now afoot. While it has no direct healthcare implications, one of the things it does is threaten to send a user’s browsing history to friends and family unless they pay the ransom. The victim, who may get tricked into allowing malicious code to gain admin privileges on their device, could end up having their personal data — and perhaps data from an EMR app — sent wherever the attacker chooses.

It seems to me that the ransomware threat will push healthcare organizations to mirror their core data assets in new and heretofore unheard of ways. HIT departments will have to bring disaster recovery methods and network intrusion defenses to prevent the worst possible outcome — a hack that kills one or more patients — and quickly. Meanwhile, if a company specializing in protecting healthcare firms from ransomware doesn’t exist yet, I suspect one will exist by the end of 2016.

EMR Usability A Pressing Issue

Posted on January 29, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

A few months ago, in a move that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, the AMA and MedStar Health made an interesting play. The physicians’ group and the health system released a joint framework designed to rank EMR usability, as well as using the framework to rank the usability of a number of widely-implemented systems.

What makes these scores interesting is not that they’re just another set of rankings — those are pretty much everywhere — but that the researchers focused on EMR usability. As any clinician will tell you (and many have told me) despite years of evolution, EMRs are still a pain in the butt to use. And clearly, market forces are doing little to change this. Looking at where widely-used systems rate on usability is a refreshing look at a neglected issue.

To score the EMRs, researchers dug into EMR vendor testing reports from ONC. This makes sense. After all, though the agency doesn’t use this data for certification, the ONC does require EMR vendors to report on user-centered design processes they used for eight capabilities.

And while the ONC doesn’t base EMR certifications on usability, my gut feeling is that the data source is pretty reliable. I would tend to believe that given they’re talking to a certifying authority, vendors are less like to fudge these reports than any they’d prepare for potential customers.

According to the partners, Allscripts and McKesson were the highest-scoring EMR vendors, gaining 15 out of 15 points. eClinicalWorks was the lowest-scoring EMR, getting only 5 of 15 possible points. In-betweeners included Cerner and MEDITECH, which got 13 points each, and Epic, which got 9 points.

And here’s the criteria for the rankings:

  • User Centered Design Process:  EMRs were rated on whether they had a user-centered design process, how many participants took part (15+ was best) and whether test participants had a clinical background.
  • Summative Testing Methodology: These ratings focused on how detailed the use cases relied upon by the testing were and whether usability measures focused on appropriate factors (effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction).
  • Summative Testing Results:  These measures focused on whether success rates for first-time users were 80% or more, and on how substantive descriptions of areas for improvement were.

Given the spotty results across the population of EMRs tested, it seems clear that usability hasn’t been a core concern of most vendors. (Yes, I know, some of you are saying, “Boy howdy, we knew that already!”)

Perhaps more importantly, though, it can be inferred that usability hasn’t been a priority for the health systems and practices investing in these products. After all, some of the so-so ratings, such as that for the Epic product, come from companies that have been in the market forever and have had the time to iterate a mature, usable product. If health systems were demanding that EMRs be easy to use, the scores would probably be higher.

Frankly, I can’t for the life of me understand why an organization would invest hundreds of millions of dollars (or even a billion) dollars in an EMR without being sure that clinicians can actually use it. After all, a good EMR experience can be very attractive to potential recruits as well as current clinicians. In fact, a study from early last year found that 79% of RNs see the hospital’s EMR as a one of the top 3 considerations in choosing where to work.

Maybe it’s an artifact of a prior era. In the past, perhaps the health systems investing in less-usable EMRs were just making the best of a shoddy situation. But I don’t think that excuse plays anymore. I believe more providers need to adopt frameworks like this one, and apply them rigorously.

Look, I know that EMR investment is a complex dance. And obviously, notions of usability will continue to evolve as EMRs involve — so perhaps it can’t be the top priority for every buyer. But it’s more than time for health organizations to take usability seriously.

Is An Epic Investment Bad For Health Leaders’ Job Stability?

Posted on January 28, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

For quite some time now, the buzz has been that at least one EMR vendor was a safe bet for everyone involved. “No one ever got fired for choosing Epic” has begun to seem as obvious a sentiment as “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM” in hospital C-suites. And certainly, in previous times that was probably true.

But it’s beginning to look as though at least in some cases, Epic has not been as safe a choice as health execs had hoped. In fact, while it’s not exactly a fully-fledged trend, it’s worth noting that Epic-related costs and technical issues have led to job losses for hospital CIOs, as well as other operational leaders, in recent times.

Perhaps the most recent example of Epic-related job attrition took place earlier this month, when the chief information officer and chief operating officer of Denver Health Medical Center. According to the Denver Post, the two executives left their posts in the wake of major disagreements over the medical center’s big investment in an Epic EMR.

The Denver Post story reports that former Denver Health CIO Gregory Veltri was on the outs with CEO Arthur Gonzalez from the outset where Epic was concerned. Apparently, Veltri argued from the get-go that the Epic install costs — which he estimated could hit $300 million when the $70 million cost of dumping the center’s current EMR contract and doubling of its IT staff were computed — stood a chance of bankrupting the hospital. (Gonzalez, for his part, claims that the Epic installation is under budget at $170 million, and says that the system should go live in April.)

In another example of Epic-related turnover, the chief information officer at Maine Medical Center in Portland seems to have left his job at least in part due to the financial impact of the hospital’s $160 million Epic investment. Admittedly, the departure of CIO Barry Blumenfeld may also have been related to technical problems with the rollout which slowed hospital collections. This took place back in 2013, but it still seems noteworthy.

The spring of 2013 also saw the departure of Sheila Sanders, the chief information officer for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in the midst of the medical center’s struggles to implement its own Epic system. While Wake Forest Baptist had spent a comparatively modest $13.3 million on direct Epic costs during its second quarter of fiscal 2012-13, the medical center had been socked by delays in revenue resulting to Epic rollout problems, including issues with billing, coding and collections.

Wake Forest Baptist reported taking an $8 million hit that quarter due to “business-cycle disruptions (that) have had a greater-than-anticipated impact on volumes and productivity.” It also reported $26.6 million in lost margin due to reduced volume during go-live and post go-live Epic optimization.

Of course, a botched rollout can mean job insecurity no matter what EMR the hospital has chosen. For example, in May of 2014, Athens Regional Medical Center President and CEO James Thaw was apparently pressured out of office when the facility’s Cerner rollout went poorly. (After weeks of Cerner problems, the hospital’s staff voted 270-0 that they had “no confidence” in the hospital’s leadership. Gulp!) Somehow, Senior Vice President and CIO Gretchen Tegethoff kept her job, but my bet is that it was a close-run thing.

And to be fair, this is obviously a small, selected set of anecdotes about questionable Epic rollouts. They don’t prove that Epic is a CIO job killer or an ineffective EMR. But these stories do highlight the fact that while Epic investments might yield good things, rolling Epic out requires nerves of steel and flawless execution.

Athenahealth Amps Up Drive To Build Inpatient EMR

Posted on January 26, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

EMR vendor athenahealth has been driving forward for a while now to build a new hospital inpatient system and fight for the big-ticket customers in acute care. Given the intense competition for the acute care EMR dollar, I’m skeptical that athenahealth can wedge its way into the game. But so far, it looks like the vendor is going about things the right way.

athenahealth already offers the athenaOne suite, which includes an ambulatory EMR, revenue cycle management and patient engagement tools. But it seems the ambitious execs there have also decided to participate in the bare-knuckled fight for hospital bucks being duked out between Cerner, Epic, MEDITECH, McKesson and Allscripts. Considering the billions at stake, these acute care giants won’t be gentle. But as the following details suggest, athenahealth may just have enough going for it to slip into place.

Last year, athenahealth got the ball rolling when it struck a co-development deal with Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to create a new inpatient system. The two organizations agreed to kick off the development work at Beth Israel’s 58-bed hospital, which is located in the nearby suburb of Needham, Mass.  The deal makes particular sense given that athena corporate is located in another Boston suburb, Watertown.

To supplement its development efforts, athenahealth also picked up small-hospital EMR vendor RazorInsights and Beth Israel’s home-built webOMR EMR. athena has replaced the RazorInsights EMR with a rebuilt version of its ambulatory athenaClinicals EMR, and integrated it with the RI hospital information system, plus several ancillary systems. This hybrid system is being sold to the small-hospital market.

athenahealth has begun converting webOMR into athenaNet in partnership with the small Needham branch of Beth Israel, working with clinicians and technical staffers to better understand the inpatient care environment.

That agreement alone might have gotten the job done, but athena didn’t stop there. Last week, the vendor announced that it would be partnering with the University of Toledo Medical Center to further speed the development of its inpatient EMR. The agreement clearly builds on the vendor’s prior relationship with the University of Toledo Physicians, which picked up the athenaOne suite in late 2014.

The deal with UTMC will do more than give athenahealth another testbed and development site. This agreement with the health system, which is dumping its McKesson Horizon system by 2018, gives athenahealth a real-life win in a substantial setting. What’s more, given that the medical center is being given the chance to build things to its liking, the new acute-care EMR is unlikely to cost as much over the long-term as, say, Epic support and maintenance.

I must admit that I still see athenahealth’s plans as fairly risky. While it has significant resources, the vendor can’t match those of its big competitors. What’s more, it could lose a great deal if it endangers its strong legacy base of ambulatory users. But if any of the established ambulatory HIT firms have a shot at the bigger deals, this one does. I’m eager to see how this turns out.

Another Epic Loss: Iasis Upgrades To Cerner

Posted on January 20, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

It’s too early to make a definitive claim, but I’m picking up some increasing evidence that Cerner is beginning to win out over Epic as some health systems upgrade. I’m not suggesting that Epic is ready to topple by any means, but it does seem that Cerner’s winning more potential matchups than they were before.

Want an example? Take the recent news that Iasis Healthcare will switch out its McKesson platform for the Cerner  Millenium EMR.  The 17-hospital system will spend $50 million to make the upgrade, which should be complete by March 2018. Most of the spending is ($35M+) is projected to come in fiscal 2016.

As I noted in an earlier post, Epic continues to grow at, well, an Epic pace. Reports suggest that Epic added 1,400 staffers last year, and the company seems likely to keep on pace in 2016. And as I previously noted, Epic software is either being used by or installed at 360 healthcare organizations in 10 countries, and also reported generating $1.8 billion in revenues for 2014.

But as the Iasis deal illustrates, Cerner is picking up some split-decision deals for what look like important reasons. One intriguing reddit post by captainnoob explains why his health system went with Cerner:

We whittled our choice down to 3 applications… McKesson Paragon, Epic, and Cerner. Those 3 were our forerunners as they were fully integrated and had modules to handle (almost) every service our facility provides. Ultimately the decision to go Cerner was based primarily on a combination of user input and cost of ownership.

  • User Input – We did numerous site visits with users from various clinical and managerial areas to talk workflow, ask questions such as how each product dealt with certain challenges we have already faced with McKesson, and view demonstrations in real-world conditions.
  • Cost of Ownership – Not just the cost of the product and implementation, but the cost of maintaining the product over 5-10 years.

I’m not sure why the competitive advantages Cerner has have shown up in higher relief recently. But my guess is that the wins Cerner is capturing have something to do with the psychology of EMR investment.

Going from a severely underpowered system — or none — to Epic involves taking a big leap of faith. How can you rationalize spending dozens or even hundreds of millions (or billions) on Epic? I’d argue that in essence, the ROI on that buy has been essentially unguessable. So the systems that have made a big Epic buy have had to justify their investment by pointing to big, still-intangible benefits like improved population health.

On the other hand, health systems that didn’t do Epic the first time, and have reasonably competent systems on board already, aren’t buying vision or reputation-ware. They aren’t pioneers, but instead, are looking for an economically and technically workable solution. In that circumstance, I know I’d be far more likely to go with a system with a lower total cost of ownership than an expensive Big Blue-style tool.

But these are just my theories. What do you think?  Is the investment tide turning toward Cerner, and why?

Epic EMR Costs Drag Down Finances At Brigham and Women’s

Posted on January 4, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

It’s worth noting from the outset that many healthcare organizations have had it worse. Epic installs have blown health system budgets sky high, sapped their profitability and undermined their credit ratings. So upon hearing the following you may not be tempted to play a sad song on the world’s smallest violin.

Still, it’s worth noting that in part due to the costs of its Epic implementation, the venerable Brigham and Women’s Hospital will fall $53 million short of its expected $121 million surplus for fiscal 2015. According to news reports, this is the first time Brigham and Women’s has missed such a target in more than 10 years.

The hospital’s president, Betsy Nabel, MD, noted that the Brigham and Women’s install is part of a massive $1.2 billion Epic implementation cutting across the 10 hospitals of the Partners HealthCare system. The broader Partners implementation is proving to be a budget-buster as well. Three years ago, Partners went into the effort with a comparatively scant $600 million budget.

Brigham and Women’s — along with nearby Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — hired 1,500 extra staff members to help with the Epic go-live, which took place in June of this year. The Brigham had budgeted $47 million during the previous year to pay for the transition costs.

But the transition cost $27 million more than expected. For one thing, once they began using the EMR, Brigham and Women’s staff apparently undercoded a bunch of visits, lowering patient care revenues.  The hospital also gave up some revenue voluntarily, by cutting back on patient volume during the first months post-go-live to ease the transition.

The rest of the shortfall came from lost patient volume in February due to heavy snowfall, as well as paying more than it had expected into its employee pension fund.

A few words of commentary seem called-for here.

* It’s not clear to me why the staffers made so many coding mistakes going out the door with the new install. I’ve written about perhaps a dozen Epic installs in depth, and have studied many more, and a rash of post-implementation coding mistakes doesn’t seem to be common. Am I missing something, or were the staffers undertrained?

* News reports suggest that nearly $14 million of the unexpected costs came from the planned reductions in patient care volume. It seems to me that if Brigham and Women’s execs planned for that shortfall, they’d know how much it was going to be. Why all of the surprise already?

By the way, the shortfall apparently kicked up so much dust that Dame Judy personally flew out to Boston to meet with the hospital leadership to head off PR trouble offer guidance.

Following the meeting, hospital president Dr. Betsy Nabel told a town hall-style gathering that all is well — that the coding problems will pass and revenue levels reestablish themselves. And after all, she noted, the Epic install is already working well enough that there’s been no increase in medical errors at the hospital.

Well, that’s a start at least. Keeping medical errors from getting worse is certainly a good thing. But for its sake, let’s hope the Brigham expects more than that from Epic!

HCA Builds Capacity For Resilience Into EMR Rollout Training

Posted on January 1, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

A few weeks ago, Hospital Corporation of America had a rather substantial EMR outage. The outage, which was caused by a problem with storage hardware, lasted about 24 hours. It largely affected a portion of the 50 hospitals it operates in Florida, but some of the 115 HCA hospitals located outside Florida were impacted too.

Though large EMR outages are worth noting, my purpose in writing this blog is not to slam HCA. Actually, HCA staffers seem to have been prepared for the worst. In fact, according to an article from the Healthcare Financial Management Association, HCA built resiliency into its EMR rollout and operations process. And that is interesting indeed.

Hiring for talent and attitude

To roll out an EMR across its large network of hospitals, HCA leaders settled on an unusual strategy.  Rather than sign up a cadre of pure HIT specialists, HCA decided to hire professionals across a wide variety of disciplines.

As it turned out, all of the 120 EMR implementation specialists it hired were under age 30, with strong organizing, communication and collaborative skills. Their degrees included English, marketing and biomedical science.

Training for rollout

To train the newly-blessed specialists, HCA created hCare University. The new team members got four to six weeks of training, including both hands-on and classroom education, in vital skills such as working with clinicians and managing projects.

hCare University also taught the implementation specialists HCA’s EMR methodology, refining the approach — and how it taught that approach — over time. HCA trialed its methods at one pilot hospital, then two more, and eventually rolled it out to 20 to 40 hospitals at a time, HFMA reports.

Stressing inclusiveness and communication

As the rollout progressed, hCare teachers and system leaders continued to hammer home the importance of effective communication — and just as importantly, making sure that clinicians felt included.

“We probably spent as much, if not more, time on the people aspects as on the technology,” said consultant Mary Mirabelli, who oversaw the rollout, as well as HCA’s Stage 1 Meaningful Use efforts. “Because you’re expecting clinicians to exhibit new behaviors and embrace a system that is sometimes not well designed for their needs, you have to figure out ways to give them control and involve them in decision making.”

Now, I admit to being a bit biased, as I’m the kind of liberal arts jack-of-all-trades HCA relied on to supervise its rollout. And I want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that traditional HIT hires are per-se inflexible!

That being said (having declared my prejudices), I would tend to believe that HCA is telling the truth when it asserts that staff confidently worked around the outage, despite its length and breadth.  I would assert that mixing in people whose primary skills are “soft” with HIT pros is an excellent way to support a resilient attitude when EMR problelms emerge.

Investing in people who can coordinate with all sides is actually good for HIT staffers. After all, doesn’t it benefit the HIT department when other folks are out there building good will, fostering cooperation and (in hopefully rare cases) minimizing damage to morale when snags or outages occur?

Maybe It’s Time To Phase Out The Meaningful Use Program

Posted on December 29, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Since Stage 1 of the Meaningful Use incentive program kicked off in 2011, the level of health IT adoption has risen dramatically across the United States. As publicly-funded programs go, it’s had quite a ride.

A few years in, nearly 97% of U.S. hospitals had achieved Stage 1 or higher of the HIMSS EMR Adoption model (as of Q1 2015). And a plurality (roughly 57%) were at Stage 5 or higher.

Meanwhile, 83% of office-based doctors are now using EMRs, according to a recent report from ONC.  The percentage drops to 74% when counting only physicians using certified EMRs, but that’s still a very substantial increase over the 57% of office-based docs using EMRs in 2011.

Whether this progress was worth the $28.1 billion paid out (as of December 2014) is anyone’s guess, but clearly, the program had a huge impact. In fact, it’s hard to argue that MU payments helped to trigger a major change in how medicine is practiced.

That being said, some critics are floating the idea that it’s time to retire Meaningful Use, or at minimum, pull back its implementation dramatically. For example, HIT superstar John Halamka contends that Meaningful Use programs “have served their purpose.”

In his blog, Halamka — who serves as CIO of both the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — suggests that Stage 3 of MU is little more than a multi-train pile-up (the following quote is long but deserves to be read in full):

 Stage 3 makes many of the same mistakes as Stage 2, trying to do too much too soon. It requires patient accessible Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) without specifying any standards.   It requires sending discharge e-prescriptions although pharmacies cannot widely support the cancel transaction that is essential to discharge medication management workflow.   It requires public health transactions but CMS has no authority to require public health authorities to standardize the way they receive data.

Clinicians cannot get through a 12 minute visit, enter the necessary Stage 3 data elements, reconcile problems/allergies/medications from multiple institutions, meet the demands of the  Stage 3 clinical quality measures, make eye contact with patients, and deliver safe medical care.

Having read the above, you won’t be surprised to learn that elsewhere, Halamka argues that Stage 3 of Meaningful Use should be dropped completely. Instead, he’d like to see the government offer merit-based rewards for positive outcomes and innovative approaches.

While Halamka’s arguments make a lot of sense, another group of people want to address the fact that the Meaningful Use program incentives have never been available to most mental health providers. As readers may know, mental health facilities such as psychiatric hospitals and substance abuse treatment facilities currently aren’t eligible for Medicaid and Medicare MU incentives. Also, front-line mental health professionals such as psychologists and licensed social workers are not included in the current definition of “eligible professionals.”

A bill progressing through the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 2646 (“Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015”) proposes to add clinical psychologists to the list of eligible professionals, and psychiatric hospitals, community mental health centers, residential or outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities to the list of eligible providers. While I’m not suggesting that Meaningful Use as currently structured is the only way to address the mental health industry’s HIT needs, those needs shouldn’t be forgotten. In fact, John would argue that not being involved in meaningful use might be the best thing that happened to mental health EHR.

I’d agree that eliminating — or at minimum transforming — the existing Meaningful Use program may be a good idea. Better to try something new than drag providers through a wasteful, painful rout.

Rural Hospitals Catching Up In HIT Adoption

Posted on December 14, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 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. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Historically, rural hospitals have lagged when it comes to health IT adoption. But according to at least one yardstick, the HIMSS EMR Adoption Model (EMRAM), rural facilities seem to have closed much of the gap.

Just a few years ago, many rural hospitals were barely at stage one of the model, which ranks facilities from Stage 0 (All three ancillaries not installed) to Stage 7 (Complete EMR; CCD transactions to share data; Data warehousing; Data continuity with ED, ambulatory, OP). Only two years ago, research suggested that rural and critical access hospitals were lagging far behind in meeting Meaningful Use criteria, and risked incurring penalties this year.

By the end of 2014, however, rural hospitals averaged a Stage 4 rating (CPOE, Clinical Decision Support (clinical protocols). This compares favorably with the 4.7 rank achieved by urban hospitals, and though academic/teaching hospitals were well ahead at a 5.4 ranking, that’s a much smaller difference than you might have seen even five years ago. Meaningful Use incentives, plus overall industry pressure to automate, seem to have done their job.

I’m pondering this, in part, because the CPSI acquisition of Healthland piqued my interest. CPSI picked up Healthland, a provider of rural and critical access hospital software, for $250 million. Given rural hospitals’ history of slow HIT adoption, I wasn’t sure what CPSI saw in Healthland, though the deal does bring revenue cycle management and an EMR for post-acute care facilities to the table.

Now that I’ve learned what progress the rural health IT market has seen, I’m no longer so skeptical. In fact, when you consider that the Healthland acquisition brings 3,300 post-acute customers that it didn’t have before, it seems like CPSI got a pretty nice deal.

Given the growing strength of the rural HIT market, I don’t think the Healthland buyout will be the last domino to fall here. I can easily imagine the giants — Cerner in particular — seeing their way clear to acquiring the combined CPSI/Healthland entity. Why Cerner? Well, if for no other reasons than having a ton of cash — and a more flexible attitude than Epic — I can imagine Cerner getting excited about rural access.

But even putting aside M&A dynamics, the news from rural markets is still intriguing. While having sophisticated health IT infrastructure is a plus anywhere, my guess is that it will be particularly powerful for rural and critical access hospitals. I hope that the growth of HIT capabilities brings a breath of fresh air — and the benefits of cutting-edge care management — to facilities that have traditionally gotten the short end of the stick.