The voice on the phone seemed genuinely amused, “Let me see, the GPS can’t find our location, right?” Right. One U-turn by the burnt barn, a right after the Conoco station, another right at the end of the road, a left across the John Deere and two and a half hours from the city on highway W, brought me to a small and very white store front, housing a nail salon and a busy family physician practice. If I stretched out both arms, I could put one hand on the front desk, and place the other hand on the back of a waiting room chair. There were six chairs separated by small tables adorned with yellow silk flowers. A texting young man in jeans and baseball cap and a middle aged woman clad in floral attire and a big green purse, occupied two of those chairs. And then Bessie walked out the doctor’s office behind the usual and customary tennis ball footed aluminum walker which was almost as tall as her, and helped by the front desk lady made a slow trek to the one chair with arms on both sides. They were calling Joe to come pick her up. Joe was going to be there in ten, fifteen minutes, tops. It was 4 PM and they were running behind.
Looks can be deceiving though. This practice is an anomaly in the rural health continuum. There are computers in every room and not even a trace of paper charts. They’ve been on a top of the line Cadillac EMR since 2005, paying a small fortune every year for the privilege and for IT guys to support it. They kept up with all the upgrades and are on the latest and greatest certified version and would very much like to get the Meaningful Use incentive that will cover about three quarters of what they spent on EMR maintenance this year. The doctor would even like to try the patient portal. He thinks it could make him more efficient. They were all ready to go on October 1st, but then something happened. They started getting solicitation emails from their EHR vendor informing the doctor that there are several accessories that he must purchase in addition to his fully certified EHR, if he wants to qualify for Meaningful Use incentives, and of course, the Cadillac vendor has a special sale on accessories this month. Confusion and frustration were palpable around the huge, and completely out of place, formal pedestal dining table in the break room.
I’ve been to this movie before, and I never had any luck convincing this particular vendor that a certified complete EHR should allow the user to achieve Meaningful Use with no need for other bits and pieces that were not mentioned anywhere during the certification process. Unfortunately, those who certify EHRs and those who supervise the certifiers are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to what is essentially a regulatory issue. In the break room the confusion and frustration were slowly changing to anger and the big plastic QT cups of pink lemonade that were brought in by someone didn’t help much. The conversation shifted to the various Meaningful Use measures and by now I wasn’t surprised to hear that they are doing rather well on most, from electronically prescribing everything to recording race and ethnicity and generating beautiful CCD clinical summaries. They weren’t sure how to give folks electronic copies of their medical records, but nobody ever asked for that and it’s highly unlikely that anyone will in the next three months. That should be good enough.
“Am I also good on immunizations? I don’t do many of those either… maybe a few HPV and some flu shots for elderly patients to save them a trip to the pharmacy. I shouldn’t have to report anything, right?” Eh… wrong, doc. Even if you only do one immunization in the next three months, you would have to test an immunization interface with the State registry, and your Cadillac EHR can’t generate the test file at this time although it is fully certified for Meaningful Use. I’ve been trying to get an answer from this vendor for months. I’ve asked CMS for a solution over a month and a half ago. I have written a blog post that got more page visits than anything I ever wrote before, and came up empty on all fronts. But the doctor seemed to be working his way to an innovative solution all by himself.
“So if I don’t give any shots after October 1st, I should be OK…. We have one bottle of HPV left anyway and Marcie needs her shot… I have a week to do that… They pay peanuts for shots, you know…. They’ll just have to go to the pharmacy…. It’s not that far…. I really don’t give many shots anyway… Yep. It should work… “. October is flu season, and I was wondering if Joe picked up Bessie by now and if the pharmacy is on their way home. I wanted to know if the pharmacy had a chair with arms for Bessie and if the pharmacy folks would also call Joe to pick her up after waiting in line for her flu shot. But instead, I just found myself mumbling that this wasn’t really the intent, but yeah, this should work.
A couple of months ago, I heard a story about a geriatrician who chose to stop giving courtesy flu shots to his patients because of Meaningful Use. I found it hard to believe then. Needless to say, I believe it now. I am certain this was not the intent at CMS and I am pretty sure this was not on the Meaningful Use roadmap at ONC. I am not in the habit of pleading and begging the powers to be to do the right thing, but I will make an exception this once. This unremarkable little practice in the middle of nowhere could have been the poster child for successful EHR adoption. Can somebody at HHS, CMS or ONC help these small practices stand up to the greedy whims of a powerful EHR vendor? And above all, can we do something to help Bessie keep her “I” in Health IT, please?
Disclaimer: In order to protect their privacy, the names of all people and locations mentioned in this post have been changed, as have certain physical characteristics, quotations and other descriptive details.
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