Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Adventures in EMR* Vol 2 Chapter 1: Government Forces a Divorce

It’s hard for me to empathize with docs and medical organizations who as late as 2015 0r 2016 lamented the U.S. government’s irresistible demands to electrify the medical record and had not yet done so. Along with the other follies imposed on all quarters in healthcare, the Accountable Care Act (ACA) spawned in the early days of the Obama administration decreed that all care provided to patients covered (paid) in any way, shape, or form by the federal government must be recorded in electronic (computerized or digital) form. More than that, this digital health record (EMR) must conform to the nebulous and ever shape-shifting requirements known as “Meaningful Use” (MU). Armed with 30 pieces of silver on the front side and the promise of slow, withering financial ruin on the back, CMS went about the business of coercing organizations large and small to move from paper to electrons.

Why, you ask, if I am so obviously disdainful of this occurrence, do I find it hard to empathize with folks who’ve been harmed by this process? Well, our group SkyVision Centers (SVC) saw the value of using an EMR at the time of our founding in 2004, back when Mr. Obama was a very junior Senator from Illinois and about to be “discovered”. The concept of an EMR, with the medical record warehoused in a server rather than in a folder, was so obvious to us at the time that we never considered the use of a traditional chart as we developed our bleeding edge business plan. As a University of Vermont grad I had learned about medical information processing at the knee of the great Larry Weed. Indeed, my biggest frustration with the EMR’s available in 2004 (and still to a degree in 2018) was that they did not allow me to do the kind of information processing that I learned from Dr. Weed’s associate Dennis Plante, who taught me about computerized medical decision making in 1984.

Those doctors and those medical groups that were still using a traditional paper chart in 2015, 16, or 17 missed the boat by 10 years; their enhanced pain brought on by their inertia was self-inflicted. More than that, the larger among these groups (I’m looking at you, UPenn) essentially recused themselves from leadership positions that they could/should have taken. As an aside which I will explore in an epilogue to this series, very large early adopters (think Cleveland Clinic, The Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Pilgrim Health among others) bear a significant responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in by abdicating their leadership role as medical institutions in favor of maximizing their return as business entities in the earliest days of EMR.

Back in those UVM days Dr. Weed built his case from two very specific premises: there is simply too much medical information for any doctor to be able to house it in his/her brain, and decision making based on the data available for any one patient is too easily influenced by a doctor’s frame of reference and biases. Sounds familiar, especially if you spend any time on Twitter and follow folks like Vinay Prasad, Saurabh Jha, and Amitabh Chandra. Dr. Weed clearly envisioned a universe of connected records (mind you, this was well before anyone outside of the government ┬áhad heard of the internet) that would allow the free interaction of multiple doctors with all of the information available on any patient. Without using the word Dr. Weed described “interoperability” perfectly. (Note that UVM had all testing results–radiology, lab, etc–available on computers in the 80′s. Sister hospital Maine Medical Center one-upped them with computerized order entry in 1983.)

Mind you, most of this was not really available in 2004 when SVC was looking for its EMR. We just assumed that it would eventually be programmed into a larger system as more doctors and practices saw the light. Our rationale for implementing an EMR at this early time in history was driven by the obvious advantages that it would give us when it came to providing the best possible patient experience when we were taking care of patients with eye problems. Utilizing an EMR allowed us to maximize our efficiency so as to minimize the amount of minutes wasted over the course of a care visit to SVC, fulfilling with our pocket book our mission statement to provide “The Best Experience in Eye Care”. Our specific EMR choice fit seamlessly into our Toyota manufacturing-derived system of workflow and enabled us to vastly exceed our patient’s expectations when it came to the office experience.

We were on the cutting edge. So what happened? Well, in short, Obamacare with all of its regulatory burdens happened. Onerous “quality” measures came and went in the early days of the ACA. My professional organizations as well as the owners of the EMR we’d chosen lobbied vociferously against the implementation of what would have been disastrous burdens on the field of eye care (among other specialties). Back at home we doubled down on our market advantage as the best office experience for our patients and slow-rolled along with our EMR provider as it did the minimum necessary to remain compliant. In hindsight I was clearly choosing efficiency and the maximization of the patient interface with the practice over Larry Weed and the information interface.

We probably could have continued this way if not for ICD-10, the coding change that increased the number and complexity of mandatory diagnosis reporting when billing. For reasons that remain unclear to me our EMR provider could not accommodate the change to ICD-10 in a way that allowed us to properly document our charges for very specific, common eye problems. This is a problem, you see, for eye doctors of any stripe take care of patients who are covered by government-funded programs. Failure to comply now meant penalties that would ramp up to 22% of payments in an industry that routinely runs a profit margin of 25-30%. Each slow step in the right direction was followed by multiple steps backwards and sideways.

We as a group never felt that our concerns and clear business needs were being adequately addressed. Have you ever owned a car that had a serious problem? One that seemed as though it was fixable, at least at the onset? Maybe it was a car that you loved, or maybe it was just a car that was paid for and did the job for you. You put money into the car to fix it and it’s not better, so you spend some more, and then you spend some more. At a certain point you realize that no matter how much money you put into fixing that car you just can’t lose the thought that it’s not going to be enough. You just can’t shake the worry that despite all of that money you are still going to end up on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere. After months of expensive upgrades that were late in coming it became clear that we could not be guaranteed that the EMR we’d been using since our creation would be able to carry us forward in a financially safe manner by meeting the government’s regulatory demand.

In effect, the U.S. government, through the regulatory demands of the ACA, forced us to initiate divorce proceedings with our EMR. To survive it became clear that SVC would need to buy and implement an entirely new EMR.

Again, you might ask, why can I not empathize with those who are late to the EMR game and suffering the pains of implementing a new EMR into their organizations if we are now in those same, exact shoes? I think it’s a fairness thing, and I fully acknowledge the irony that I am a guy who routinely quotes Scar’s great line “Life’s not faaaiiirrr.” You see, in my mind, we did the right thing way before we had to by spending money we really didn’t have in 2004 on an EMR way before it was mandatory. And we spent. And we spent. As anyone who has ever worked with mandatory software knows, your key critical programs are the gifts that keep giving…to your vendor. For our commitment to providing a better experience for our patients (and admittedly more business for the practice) we would now be rewarded by having the privilege of paying for a whole new system.

And as I will discuss next, paying for the “right” to see all of the information we’d already paid for.

Next Chapter 2: The War of the Roses

 

*Like all good reporting where one hopes to discuss global issues rather than very granular, product-specific issues, this series will not name any products that we have previously or are now using.

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