Up until now, the benefits of electronic medical records that have occurred accrue to just about everybody — patients, employers, state and federal governments, and medical insurers — but the actual health care providers. Doctors get the least benefits, especially in small practice groups (those with fewer than five physicians) that make up most medical practices.
But even those who might benefit from electronic health records don’t, says Homer Chin, associate medical director for clinical information systems at Kaiser Permanente Northwest. Why? Because there is little incentive to share information, the core of an electronic health record (EHR; also called an EMR for “electronic medical record”). For example, hospitals make money by doing tests. But once EHRs are up and running, a doctor ordering a test electronically might immediately receive an alert saying the test was unnecessary because the patient had the same test or procedure at another location. “There is not much revenue and profitability in putting in an EHR. There is little financial incentive,” Chin says.
An ironic consequence of EHRs is that, by helping raise the quality of health care, they penalize doctors and other medical providers for success, says Wes Rischel, a vice president at Gartner. The bottom line: Doctors will see fewer patients.
Beyond the income factor, the high cost of EHR systems today — not only the systems, but the setup and training — also dissuades adoption by doctors, especially those in small groups. Physicians have been unwilling to invest anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 in an EHR system where the economic benefits tend to go to someone else. Today’s EHR systems are not as easy to use as they could be, so there is a large learning curve required, Chin says: “There is something intuitive about paper chart and prescription pad.”
Recognizing these factors, the stimulus package tackles these financial challenges head on by offering money to health care providers. Hospitals submitting via EHR systems to Medicare and Medicaid will receive up to $6 million a year in additional payments for sending data electronically. This incentive will remove much of the adoption inertia seen so far, says Richard Archer, a principal in the health care IT advisory practice a KPMG.
But now Microsoft, Google, and AOL founder Steve Case’s Revolution Health are looking at entering the health care information exchange market. All three offer individuals a personal health record, which puts the patient in control of his medical information. But the business aspect is in giving health care providers access to a person’s complete health record from a single site.
There are two major questions around the reliance on health records from these providers, say industry analysts. One is whether users will trust a for-profit organization to care for the most personal kind of information. The second is whether each of us can be trusted to manage and keep such a life-and-death record up to date or if it’s safer to leave that responsibility to organizations whose only job it is to keep the health data updated.
The prognosis for EHRs
EHR providers are, not surprisingly, bullish on the future of EHR efforts. Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, a senior director at Exigen Systems, says deploying an EHR system is just like implementing any big enterprise application, only the enterprise in this case is bigger and the stakes are higher. “The technology exists today and despite the fact that we lack some core standards, we are enabling the development of a flexible infrastructure to stay in tune with requirements. I can visualize a successful national system,” he says.
As Kaiser’s Chin points out, there is a convergence occurring around health care technology regarding how to share it and use it to assist delivery of services and treatment. But the challenge of orchestrating and satisfying so many stakeholders remains. Plus, even if the solutions are mandated rather than eventually negotiated, the task of gathering the many pieces that are still in flux, then integrating them remains a complex technical and process task.
Over time, both industry representatives and analysts expect that every U.S. citizen will have an EHR available nationwide. But to make it happen will require a great deal of cooperation, innovation, and an investment in health-oriented IT. This shift will likely start at a less ambitious level than the political rhetoric suggests, with local practitioners sharing patient information in a local health care ecosystem.