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Would Cerner DoD Loss Seal Its Fate As An Also-Ran?

Posted on July 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.

As everyone knows, Epic has attained a near-unbeatable place in the race for U.S. hospital market share. By one important criterion, Meaningful Use attestations, Epic has the lead hands down, with about 186,000 attestations as of March 2015 compared with 120,331 attestations on Cerner systems.

That being said, Cerner is hardly an insignificant force in the hospital EMR marketplace. It’s a multibillion-dollar powerhouse which still holds a strong #2 position and, if a casual survey of Web and social media commentary is to be believed, has done far less to alienate its customers with high-handed tactics. And while Cerner systems are far from cheap, you don’t regularly see headlines citing a Cerner investment as pivotal in a hospital’s credit rating taking a pratfall. Also, Cerner has the most contracts with MU-eligible hospitals, holding contracts with about 20% of them.

Nonetheless, there’s an event looming which could tip the scales substantially further in Epic’s direction. As many readers know, Epic is part of a team competing for the Department of Defense’s $11B Healthcare Management Systems Modernization contract (Word on the street is that we could hear the winner of the DoD EHR bid this week). I’d argue that if Epic wins this deal, it might have the leverage to push Cerner’s head under water once and for all.  Cerner, too, is fighting for the deal, but if it wins that probably won’t be enough to close the gap with Epic, as it’s harder to play catch up than to zoom ahead in a space you already control.

Now my colleague John argues that winning the DoD contract might actually be bad for Epic. As he sees it, losing the DoD deal wouldn’t do much damage to its reputation, as most hospital leaders would understand that military healthcare bears little resemblance to commercial healthcare delivery. In fact, he contends that if Epic wins the contract, it could be bad for its customers, as the Verona, Wisc.-based giant may be forced to divert significant resources away from hospital projects. His reasoning makes sense.

But losing the DoD contract would almost certainly have a negative impact on Cerner. While Epic might not suffer much of an image loss if it loses the contest, Cerner might. After all, it doesn’t have quite the marquee list of customers that Epic does (such as the Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Hospital). And if Cerner’s rep suffers, look out. As a surgeon writing for investor site Seeking Alpha notes, the comparatively low cost of switching TO Cerner can just as easily be used as a reason to switch AWAY FROM Cerner.

What’s more, while Cerner’s acquisition of Siemens’ health IT business — adding the Soarian product to its stable — is likely to help the company differentiate itself further going forward, but that’s going to take a while.  If Cerner loses the DoD bid, the financial and PR hit could dampen the impact of the acquisition.

Net-net, I doubt that Cerner is going to lie down and play dead under any circumstances, nor should it. Epic may have a substantial advantage but there’s certainly room for Cerner to keep trucking. Still, if Cerner loses the DoD bid it could have a big impact on its business. Now is the time for Cerner to reassure current and potential customers that it’s not planning to scale back if Epic wins.

Why Not “Meaningful Interoperability” For EMR Vendors?

Posted on July 28, 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.

At this point, arguably, Meaningful Use has done virtually all of the work that it was designed to do. But as we all know, vendors are behind the curve. If they aren’t forced to guarantee interoperability — or at least meet a standard that satisfies most interconnectivity demands — they’re simply not going to bother.

While there’s obviously a certification process in place for EMR vendors which requires them to meet certain standards, interoperability seemingly didn’t make the cut. And while there’s many ways vendors could have shown they’re on board, none have done anything that really unifies the industry.

PR-driven efforts like the CommonWell Alliance don’t impress me much, as I’m skeptical that they’ll get anywhere. And the only example I can think of where a vendor  is doing something to improve interoperability, Epic’s Care Everywhere, is intended only to connect between Epic implementations. It’s not exactly an efficient solution.

A case in point: One of own my Epic-based providers logged on to Care Everywhere a couple of weeks ago to request my chart from another institution, but as of yet, no chart has arrived. That’s not exactly an effective way to coordinate care! (Of course, Epic in particular only recently dropped its fees for clinical data sharing, which weren’t exactly care coordination-friendly either.)

Increasingly, I’ve begun to think that the next stage of EMR maturation will come from some kind of “Meaningful Interoperability” incentive paid to vendors who really go the extra mile. Yes, this is iffy financially, but I believe it has to be done. As time and experience have shown, EMR vendors have approximately zero compelling reasons to foster universal interoperability, and perhaps a zillion to keep their systems closed.

Of course, the problem with rewarding interoperability is to decide which standards would be the accepted ones. Mandating interoperability would also force regulators to decide whether variations from the core standard were acceptable, and how to define what “acceptable” interoperability was. None of this is trivial.

The feds would also have to decide how to phase in vendor interoperability requirements, a process which would have to run on its own tracks, as provider Meaningful Use concerns itself with entirely different issues. And while ONC might be the first choice that comes to mind in supervising this process, it’s possible a separate entity would be better given the differences in what needs to be accomplished here.

I realize that some readers might believe that I’m dreaming if I believe this will ever happen. After all, given the many billions spent coaxing (or hammering) providers to comply with Meaningful Use, the Congress may prefer to lean on the stick rather than the carrot. Also, vendors aren’t dependent on CMS, whose involvement made it important for providers to get on board. And it may seem more sensible to rejigger certification programs — but if that worked they’d have done it already.

But regardless of how it goes down, the federal government is likely to take action at some point on this issue. The ongoing lack of interoperability between EMRs has become a sore spot with at least some members of Congress, for good reasons. After all, the lack of free and easy sharing of clinical data has arguably limited the return on the $30B spent on Meaningful Use. But throwing the book at vendors isn’t going to cut it, in my view. As reluctant as Congressional leaders may be to throw more money at the problem, it may be the only way to convince recalcitrant EMR vendors to invest significant development resources in creating interoperable systems.

8 Biggest Epic Price Tags in 2015

Posted on July 3, 2015 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.

Akanksha Jayanthi from Becker’s Hospital Review has aggregated a list of Epic purchases in 2015. The article does make the disclaimer that some hospitals and health systems have not yet disclosed the price of their Epic purchase. So, there are likely more Epic purchases. However, the Becker’s list gives you some insight into how much it costs to purchase Epic.

  • Partners HealthCare: $1.2 billion
  • Lehigh Valley Health Network: $200 million
  • Mayo Clinic: “Hundreds of millions”
  • Lahey Hospital & Medical Center: $160 million
  • Lifespan: $100 million
  • Erlanger Health System: $97 million
  • Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare: $54 million
  • Saint Francis Medical Center: $43 million

This list isn’t surprising for me. In fact, the most surprising part is that Epic would sell a $43 million implementation. That would have previously been unheard of from Epic. However, we’ve seen Epic moving slowly down the chain. I’m not sure if that’s because the top of the chain has dried up or something else, but Epic has definitely been doing smaller implementations which they wouldn’t have considered before.

What should also be noted is that many of these numbers are estimates. With projects of this size, it’s really easy for the cost of the EHR implementation to balloon out of control. In fact, the Partners HealthCare Epic implementation at the top of the list is a great example. It was originally estimated at $600 million and you can see that estimate has doubled.

When you look at these numbers, is it any surprise that investors want to take down Epic? I’d like to see a list of the Epic renewal prices. Can you imagine what the Epic renewal for Kaiser’s $9 billion Epic EHR implementation will be? That’s where the opportunity lies for someone wanting to disrupt Epic.

Even Without Meaningful Use Dollars, EMRs Still Selling

Posted on June 10, 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.

I don’t know about you, readers, but I found the following data to be rather surprising. According to a couple of new market research reports summarized by Healthcare IT News, U.S. providers continue to be eager EMR buyers, despite the decreasing flow of Meaningful Use incentive dollars.

On the surface, it looks like the U.S. EMR market is pretty saturated. In fact, a recent CMS survey found that more than 80% of U.S. doctors have used EMRs, spurred almost entirely by the carrot of incentive payments and coming penalties. CMS had made $30 billion in MU incentive payments as of March 2015. (Whether they truly got what they paid for is another story.)

But according to Kalorama Information, there’s still enough business to support more than 400 vendors. Though the research house expects to see vendor M&A shrink the list, analysts contend that there’s still room for new entrants in the EMR space. (Though they rightfully note that smaller vendors may not have the capital to clear the hurdles to certification, which could be a growth-killer.)

Kalorama found that EMR sales grew 10% between 2012 and 2014, driven by medical groups doing system upgrades and hospitals and physician groups buying new systems, and predicts that the U.S. EMR market will climb to $35.2 billion by 2019. Hospital EMR upgrades should move more quickly than physician practice EMR upgrades, Kalorama suggests.

Another research report suggests that the reason providers are still buying EMRs may be a preference for a different technical model. Eighty-three percent of 5,700 small and solo-practitioner medical practices reported that they are fond of cloud-based EMRs, according to Black Book Rankings.

In fact, practices seem to have fallen in love with Web-based EMRs, with 81% of practices telling Black Book that they were happy with implementation, updates, usability and ability to customize their system, according to the Q2 2015 survey. Only 13% of doctor felt their EMRs met or exceeded expectations in 2012, when cloud-based EMRs were less common.

Now, neither research firm seems to have spelled out how practices and hospitals are going to pay for all of this next-generation EMR hotness, so we might look back at the current wave of investment as the time providers got in over their head again. Even a well-capitalized, profitable health system can be brought to its knees by the cost of a major EMR upgrade, after all.

But particularly if you’re a hospital EMR vendor, it looks like news from the demand front is better than you might have expected.

Partners Goes With $1.2B Epic Installation

Posted on June 2, 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.

After living with varied EMRs across its network for some time, Boston-based Partners HealthCare has decided to take the massive Epic plunge, with plans to spend an estimated $1.2 billion on the new platform. That cost estimate is up from the initial quite conservative spending estimate from 3 years ago of $600M, according to the Boston Globe.

As is always the case with an EMR install of this size, Partners has invested heavily in staff to bring the Epic platform online, hiring 600 new employees and hundreds of consultants to collaborate with Epic on building this install. The new hires and consultants are also tasked with training thousands of clinicians to navigate the opaque Epic UI and use it to manage care.

The move comes at the tail end of about a decade of M&A spending by Partners, whose member hospitals now include Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, McLean Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and the North Shore Hospital.

The idea, of course, is to create a single bullet-proof record for patients that retains information no matter where the patient travels within the sprawling Partners network. Partners can hardly manage the value-based compensation it can expect to work with in the future if it doesn’t have a clear patient-level and population level data on the lives it manages.

Even under ideal circumstances, however, such a large and complex project is likely to create tremendous headaches for both clinical and IT staffers. (One might say that it’s the computing equivalent of Boston’s fabled “Big Dig,” a gigantic 15-year highway project smack in the middle of the city’s commuting corridor which created legendary traffic snarls and cost over $14.6 billion.)

According to a report in Fortune, the Epic integration and rollout project began over the weekend for three of its properties, Brigham & Women’s, Faulkner Hospital and Dana Farber. Partners expects to see more of its hospitals and affiliated physician practices jump on board every few months through 2017 — an extremely rapid pace to keep if other Epic installs are any indication. Ultimately, the Epic install will extend across 10 hospitals and 6,000 doctors, according to the Globe.

Of course, the new efforts aren’t entirely inward-facing. Partners will also leverage Epic to build a new patient portal allowing them to review their own medical information, schedule appointments and more. But with any luck, patients will hear little about the new system going forward, for if they do, it probably means trouble.

Is Epic Too Big To Fail?

Posted on May 27, 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.

While there’s a chance an Epic purchase can endanger a hospital’s financial health, I’ve never heard a whisper of gossip suggesting that Epic is in financial trouble.

In fact, it appears virtually unstoppable. Though Epic is a private company, and doesn’t disclose its financial information, its 2014 revenue was estimated at $1.75 billion, up from $1.19 billion in 2011. And despite the fact that the hospital EMR market is getting saturated, the giant EMR vendor is doing quite nicely with the estimated 15% to 20% of the market it is reported to hold.

Still, what would happen if Epic took a body blow of some kind and stopped being able to support the implementation and operation of its products?  After all, buying an EMR isn’t like picking up, say, a fleet of trucks that the hospital services and maintains. For years — sometimes a decade — after a hospital goes with Epic, that hospital is typically reliant on Epic to help keep the EMR lights on.

Which brings me to my core question: Is Epic too big to fail? Would it create such a disaster in the healthcare market that the U.S. government should step in if Epic ever had a massive problem meeting its commitments?

As little as I like saying so, there’s a strong argument to be made that Epic simply can’t be allowed to stumble, much less crumble.

As of April 2014, Epic reportedly had 297 customers, a number which has undoubtedly grown over the past year. What’s more, 70% of HIMSS Analytics Stage 7 hospitals, i.e. hospitals for which their EMR is absolutely mission critical, use the EpicCare inpatient EMR.

If Epic were to face some financial or operational disaster that prevented it from supporting its hospitals customers, those hospitals would be very compromised. Epic’s customers simply couldn’t leap abruptly to, say, a competing Cerner system, as the transition could take several years.

Depending how far along in their Epic install and launch they were, hospitals might try to limp along with the technology they had in place, switch temporarily to paper records or try to keep their progress going with whatever Epic consultants they could find.

In an effort to recover from the loss of Epic support, hospitals would be forced to bid high for the services of those consultants. Hospitals could have their IT budgets decimated, their credit harmed or even be driven out of business.

In the crazy shuffle that would follow, there’s little doubt that many medical errors would occur, some serious and some fatal. It’s impossible to predict how many errors would arise, of course, but I think it’s easy to argue that the number would be non-trivial.

Given all this, the feds might actually be forced to step in and clean up Epic’s mess if it made one. Mind you, I’m not saying that, say, HHS has such a plan in place, but perhaps it should.

Ultimately, I think the healthcare industry ought to do some self-policing and find some ways to reduce its reliance on a single, frighteningly-powerful vendor. Over time, I believe that will involve gradually shifting away from reliance on existing EMRs to next-gen EMRs built to support value-driven payment and population health analysis. In the mean time, we’d better hope nobody drops a giant rock on Epic’s executive headquarters.

Study: Scribes Have Positive Financial Impact

Posted on May 22, 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.

Many hospitals, and some larger medical practices, have been using scribes to capture medical documentation within EMRs — leaving the provider free to make old-fashioned eye contact with patients.

Using the scribe might sound like a crude workaround to techies, but it’s been a hit with emergency department doctors, who prefer to focus on their brief, critical encounters with patients rather than the hospital’s expensive toy.

While it was clear from the outset that doctors loved having a scribe to support them, there’s been scant evidence that the scribe was anything other than an added cost.

A recent study, however, has concluded that at least from a Case Mix Index standpoint, scribes can have a meaningful impact on a hospital’s revenue.  The study, which evaluated the use of scribes between 2012 and 2014 across a group of hospitals, concluded that the scribes save money and boost patient-doctor communication.

The study, which was designed to capture the impact of medical scribes on a hospital’s CMI, linked Best Practices Inpatient Care Ltd. with Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, Advocate Condell Medical Center and hospitalist-specific medical scribes from ScribeAmerica LLC.

Kicking things off to a good start, ScribeAmerica and Best Practices put scribes through a jointly-developed course that emphasized workflow, productivity and accurate inpatient documentation. The researchers then tallied the results of using trained scribes over a two-year period in the two hospitals.

From 2012 to 2014, researchers found that for both Advocate Condell Medical Center and Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, CMI values climbed after medical scribes came on board.  Advocate Good Shepherd’s CMI grew by .26 and Condell Medical’s CMI rose .28. These are pretty significant numbers given that a CMI growth of 0.1% typically translates to a gain of about $4,500 per patient. In this case, the hospitals gained roughly $12,000 per patient.

These findings make sense when you consider that using scribes seems to have served its purpose, which is to be extenders for providers who’d otherwise be hunched over an EMR screen.

Researchers found that inpatient physicians at the two hospitals studied were able to cut time spent on chart updates by about 10 minutes per patient on average. This profit-building effect is enhanced by the fact that scribes often get discharge summaries prepared immediately, rather than within 72 hours as is often the case in other hospitals.

That being said, it should be noted that the study we’ve summarized here was co-written by the CEO of Best Practices, which clearly invested a lot of time and effort training the scribes for the specific tasks important to the study.

Still, the study does suggest, at minimum, that scribes need not necessarily be written off as an expense, given their capacity for freeing providers for billable clinical activity. Ideally, IT vendors will develop an EMR that doctors actually want to use and don’t need an intermediary to work with effectively.  But until that happy day arrives, scribes seem like they can make a difference.

EMRs Continue To Raise Malpractice Litigation Risks For Hospitals

Posted on May 18, 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.

EMRs may yet realize the massive value proposition their fans imagine, but before they get there hospitals still have to roll down a bumpy road.  One threat that continues to loom over hospital EMRs — even if CIOs succeed at battling their high cost and complexity — is the distinct possibility that they will generate new categories of malpractice risk.

With EMRs being increasingly targeted in medical malpractice suits, hospitals and doctors need to be prepared for attacks of this kind. According to a data review by physician-owned med mal insurer the Doctors Company, EMRs were a part of med mal litigation in just 1% of a sample of suits closed between 2007 and 2013, but the frequency doubled between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to a report in Politico. That still only adds up to 2% of cases, but experts expect the number of EMR-involved medical malpractice suits to climb rapidly.

What’s more, trying to bury the mistakes by altering medical records can be a serious mistake. For example, notes an article in Medscape, the documentation which serves as a shield against malpractice accusations can also reveal details of when suspicious changes have been made. While clinicians may not always remember this, EMRs make changes in records after care has been given very easy to trace, something which can end up as quite damning if a patient care outcome is poor.

One particularly common trouble spot for EMR-related errors is self-populating templates, which, while they make life easier for doctors by capturing a patient’s recent medical history, can also create grounds for serious misunderstandings or medical errors.  For example, at a conference attended by Medscape editors, one speaker told the story of a template which generated text saying the patient had had hip surgery — but the patient had actually had a spinal procedure.

Other mistakes EMRs can cause include faulty voice recognition, misinterpretation of drop-down menus, reliance on outdated or error-ridden records and typos that generate medical errors.

However, organizations that are prepared can avoid many of these errors. In an effort to do so, some hospitals and health systems are studying how technologies like EMRs will fit into their workflow. These facilities and systems are creating human-factor teams that conduct simulations in hopes of catching error-causing issues with EMR use before such errors become an issue.  While such teams are not common — though they should be! — a report in iHealthBeat notes that the Society for Simulation in Healthcare had identified at least 165 simulation centers in the U.S. as of summer 2014.

Studying what impact a complex health IT system like an EMR will have on a healthcare staffers seems like a sensible and even brain-dead obvious move. But if less than 200 of the 5,000-odd hospitals are doing so, the healthcare industry has a lot of work to do before it can truly say EMRs are safe.

Could Vendors Create Interoperability Retroactively If the Government Passed a Mandate?

Posted on May 13, 2015 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.

In response to Anne Zieger’s post titled “HHS’ $30B Interoperability Mistake“, Richard Schmitz sent out this tweet:

Then, Anne Zieger responded with an intriguing question:

While I don’t think we should peg all the blame on the EHR vendors (many hospitals didn’t want interoperability either), there have been good economic reasons not to be interoperable. Anne’s question is a good one: “Could vendors create interoperability retroactively if the government passed a mandate?”

I think the question is simple: Absolutely.

If EHR vendors had to be interoperable, they would do it. In fact, most EHR vendors have already solved the technical challenges. In some limited areas they’re already sharing data. The problems of healthcare interoperability are not technical, but all financial and political.

I’m hopeful that ACOs and value based reimbursement will push healthcare interoperability to the forefront. However, that will still be a long haul before it’s a reality. What do you think? If there was a mandate would EHRs be able to be interoperable?

Erlanger Health System Takes A Chance On $100M Epic Plunge

Posted on May 11, 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.

The seemingly eternal struggle between EMR giants Cerner and Epic Systems has ended in another win for Epic, which was the final choice of Chattanooga, TN-based Erlanger Health System. The health system’s CEO, Kevin Spiegel, who said that Cerner had been its other finalist, announced last week that Erlanger would spend about $100 million over 10 years for the Epic installation.

Erlanger, a four-facility public hospital system with about 800 total beds, is an academic medical system and serves as a campus of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. The system also partners with UT to operate the UT Erlanger Physicians Group, a 170-member multispecialty practice.

The health system, which fell in financial trouble in 2012, only recently saved itself and positioned itself for the massive Epic investment. It closed out FY 2014 with $618M in total operating revenue and $18M in operating income.

Erlanger’s turnaround is all well and good. But that being said, these numbers suggest that Erlanger is making something of a gamble by agreeing to an approximately $10M a year health IT investment. After all, the health system itself concedes that its return to financial health came in large part due to $20 million in new Medicare and Medicaid funding from CMS, along with new funding from the state’s Public Hospital Supplemental Payment Pool. And politically-obtained funds can disappear with the stroke of a pen.

The risky nature of Erlanger’s investment seems even more apparent when you consider that the system has an aggressive building plan in place, including a new orthopedic center, a $68M expansion of one of its hospitals, a 100,00 square foot children’s & women’s ambulatory center and a new health sciences center. Particularly given that Erlanger just completed its turnaround last year, does it make sense to squeeze in Epic payments alongside of such a large capital investment in infrastructure?

What’s more, the health system has a bond rating to rehabilitate. Faced with financial hardships in 2013, its bond rating was downgraded by Moody’s to a Baa2 and the system’s outlook was rated “negative.” By 2014, Erlanger’s had managed to boost the Moody’s outlook to “stable,” in part due to the influx of state and federal funds obtained by Erlanger execs, but the Baa2 rating on its $148.4 million in bond debt stayed in place.

While I imagine the hospital will realize a return on its Epic spending at some point, it’s hard to see it happening quickly.  In fact, I’d guess that it’ll be years before Erlanger’s Epic install will be mature enough to be evaluated for ROI, given the level of effort it takes to build a mature install.

In the meantime, Erlanger leaders may be left wondering, from time to time at least, whether they really can afford their expensive new EMR.