Thursday, August 04, 2005

Another Point of View (abstracted from Annals of Internal Medicine

Lessons Learned

This is a summary of comment from a group of four internal medicine physicians who successfully but painfully transformed their medical practice using electronic medical records.


It is naive to assume that small practices will move to electronic health records without a variety of supports, one of which is certainly financing. None of the many beneficiaries of our investment—patients, insurance companies, our specialist colleagues, health plans, our liability carrier—have directly shared in the cost of implementing an electronic health record system. Enhanced reimbursement models will be needed for wider adoption. This could be achieved through performance incentives tied to implementation of such systems in capitated contracts or through a common procedural terminology code for "data transfer" to reflect the one-time increased effort and cost of moving data from paper to electronic format. A recent report estimates incentives of $12 000 to $24 000 per full-time physician per year would be needed to make the business case for immediate adoption of electronic health records, with those incentives transferring to performance-based incentives over time (7). Any of these incentive models would work for us and make adoption easier in other small practices.
Although some predict that vendors will shift their focus to the small practice market (5), it is difficult to see how vendors will support implementation of an electronic health record in the small practice setting while keeping prices affordable. Small practices need much more training and support from vendors than do large groups. The support provided by our large national vendor presupposed the existence of dedicated information technology staff and an administrative layer that could plan work flow and train staff. Neither of these infrastructures are present in a small office, and both are critical to success. In addition, small practices need structured assistance to develop their capacity to manage organizational change. Models of shared local training and support must be developed if small offices are to be successful in implementation.
Perhaps the most important asset we could have used to ease the pain of implementation was more clinical capacity. A decline in productivity after implementation of an electronic health record seems inevitable, and if a practice is already straining to meet patient demand, an absence of reserve magnifies the stress of implementation. For us, the financial stress of acquiring the electronic health record precluded simultaneous addition of a new mid-level practitioner or physician, which argues even more strongly for the need for financial support.
Patients want and expect their physician, especially their primary care physician, to have a comprehensive grasp of what is going on with them medically and to be able to respond to such questions as, "How much weight have I lost?" or "What was my cholesterol level last time?" Clearly, aggregating comprehensive clinical information at the point of care is a basic function of excellent primary care. Why is it that every academic health center and hospital acquires state-of-the-art cardiac imaging tools promptly, but primary care offices and residency training programs are still using paper records? Given their experience with other "customer service" operations, such as retail, banking, or travel, patients assume a level of information technology infrastructure that most of us in health care simply do not have. Unsupported by technologies now taken for granted almost everywhere else, we in health care regularly fail to meet basic patient expectations.
A major factor that prompted us to adopt an electronic health record was the hope, now at least partially fulfilled, that it would improve our ability to meet patient expectations and improve our job satisfaction. Despite the difficulties and expense of implementing the electronic health record, none of us would go back to paper. We find ourselves able to be better physicians: We communicate more quickly and clearly with patients on the telephone and by letter, transmit important clinical information (albeit on paper produced automatically by our system) more efficiently to specialists, and spend less time paging through charts to find out what the previous cholesterol values (for example) had been. Practicing with a computer in hand allows us to access current health information for ourselves and our patients without having to leave the room or interrupt the flow of a patient encounter. We have already caught a glimpse of population health possibilities when, on the same day as the withdrawal of valdecoxib from the market, we were able to identify and send letters about the withdrawal to the 16 patients in our practice who were taking the drug. We expect soon to produce a list of patients with diabetes so that we can audit their care and see how well we meet our care standards. We also plan to use our electronic health record to provide each of these patients with an individualized report on services for which they appear to be overdue.
If the United States is to realize the benefits of information technology in health care, substantial investments will be needed to shepherd small offices through what is an arduous process. We believe that many practices will examine the current environment and defer a decision to adopt an electronic health record, and given our experience, it would be hard to disagree with them. All the hoped-for benefits to the overall delivery system and to patients will only accrue if small offices, which are the access points to health care for most patients in the United States, successfully adopt information technology. We believe that new models are urgently needed to deliver both financial and administrative support to those who would accept the challenge.

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