Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Meaningfully Shop for an EHR – Part I

So you’ve been hearing all about the recent EHR buzz and decided to give it a try. Whether you are convinced that electronic records are the way to go, or you have reached a point where you are willing to give it a try, the first thing to do is buy one of those EHRs. You may be staring at a glossy brochure or website featuring a distinguished silver-haired doctor holding a cool little tablet computer and  smiling reassuringly at the little old lady sitting comfortably in front of him, with a large 1-800 number on the bottom urging you to call now. Don’t.

Shopping for an EHR may be more complicated, but is not much different in nature than shopping for a car or a new type of breakfast cereal. Of course, you have been shopping for cereal since you were a toddler and probably bought your first car as a teenager, so the entire shopping process is almost second nature. Not so with an EHR. Just like cars and cereal boxes, there are hundreds of EHR products out there, and just like cars and cereals, you need not bother with most, and after you narrow the field down to three or four, it makes little difference which one you end up taking home. The qualitative roadmap below will lead you to those three or four obvious choices of EHRs best suited to your particular situation.  The final choice is yours to make.

The first thing you need to do is to honestly list why you want to invest in an EHR. Listing goals has two purposes, one is to help guide your selection and the other is to retrospectively assess your success or lack thereof. The more specific and measurable your goals are, the better they will serve you. Let’s look at some examples.
  • I want to receive the $44,000 stimulus money from CMS – This is a very precise goal and can be easily measured over the next 5 years. This goal also exemplifies the need to have enough information before you set a goal. You need to know that the amount of incentives is not fixed. Instead it depends on your patient mix, your charges, your ability to meet complex requirements, the date you start using your EHR and even the next election. You also need to know that these incentives are fully taxable.
  • I want to improve my practice’s efficiency – I’m sure that here you are envisioning getting rid of paper charts, automating billing, having lab results and other paper artifacts come in electronically, reduce phone calls, increase number of visits and maybe reduce payroll a little. The right EHR, correctly implemented and correctly utilized can help with many of these goals, but not all. Here we consider the fact that your goals must be realistic. Expecting to be able to see more patients with an EHR is not realistic and probably the opposite is true. Reducing payroll is also not a very likely outcome, since for every medical records person you may be able to let go, you would have to hire an “IT guy”, and if you are a small or solo practice, there is no one to fire anyway. Nevertheless, break this goal down into various efficiencies and quantify your expectations.
  • I want to increase reimbursement levels – This is a very doable goal. The point here is that if you want to be able to measure success, you should set a better defined goal. Are you referring to being able to safely code to a more appropriate level? If so what is your desired improvement? 10%? 20%? Are you referring to ability to participate in an Accountable Care Organization? Are you intent on obtaining performance bonuses from insurers or an HMO? Perhaps all of the above. Just make sure you list them with as much specificity as possible.
  • I want to improve patient care – That’s a great goal, but needs a lot of definition work. You may want to be able to spend more time with each patient, or you may write down that you want to improve the standard of care for all your diabetics, or perhaps you want to make sure that all the kids in your care get all their immunizations on schedule. There are too many options to list and they will depend on your specialty, the characteristics of your patient panel and your professional views on the practice of medicine. Try to be very specific here as well.
These goals are just the most common examples. I am certain that you will come up with many more and you should consult with everybody else in your practice as to their goals as well. As mentioned above, and very similar to car shopping, during the next few months, you will inevitably find out that some goals are unattainable and others will need to be sacrificed due to constraints.

If you had all the money in the world and no kids or dogs, you would probably drive something different than what you drive today. You knew your limitations when you went looking for a car and you should know them when searching for an EHR.
  • I don’t want to spend a fortune – This is the most common and most important constraint, but it does need a bit more detail. Do you want to make a capital investment now and pay less in the future, or do you want to get an EHR with no money down and pay a monthly fee? How much can you afford to pay upfront? Do you want to go into debt and take out a loan? What can you comfortably pay every month? What are the tax advantages of each approach? Would you compromise and drive the standard company car if it was free (read: the EHR the hospital is giving away)? Lots of decisions to be made here, but establishing a budget and sticking to it will protect you down the road.
  • I don’t want to deal with IT – If this is one of your personal constraints, it will narrow down the field in a hurry to only those EHRs that can be remotely hosted by the vendor or one of its business partners.
  • I want my data in my office – This is the flip side of the constraint above and will similarly remove quite a few EHRs that insist on “hosting” your data.
  • My partner refuses to use a computer – You will need an EHR that can accommodate both of you and a vendor that is willing to be understanding and work with you.
  • I want to install the EHR before flu season – Sounds simple, but you will find that accommodating your timelines may not be so easy when everybody is out there buying EHRs.
This list will get very long. Talk to everybody in your office and let the list grow. Your billers in particular may bring up goals and constraints that you would have never considered. The next step is to take all those goals and constraints and translate them into requirements for your EHR. To continue the car analogy, if your goal was that all three kids and the large dog fit comfortably in the back seat, then the requirement is that the car has room for at least 5 passengers in the back, which will then narrow down your choices to an SUV or minivan. Combine that with your budget of no more than $30,000 and a constraint that you only buy American, and you have arrived at your handful of car choices. Let’s look at a sample list of requirements for an EHR for a solo primary care practice in a remote rural area. You should come up with your own specific requirements.

Non-Functional Requirements
As the name suggests, these are general requirements which do not pertain to actual software functions.
  • No money down and no more than $500 per month for the whole thing
  • Ability to function with or without internet connectivity
  • Maximum 3 seconds for screens to load
  • Support dictation and hand-writing
  • Ability to access records from nursing home, hospital and home
  • All data and records, or a current copy, physically stored in my office.
  • Ability for multiple users to access charts simultaneously
  • Certified for stimulus incentives
  • Money back guarantees if not satisfied
Functional requirements
These are specific requirements for specific functions in the software. Most will be derived from your goals.
  • All 25 Meaningful Use requirements fully implemented
  • Coding advice in workflow and automatic E&M calculation
  • Automated claim creation, submission and electronic remittance
  • Ability to verify eligibility in real time
  • Connectivity to the hospital down the street to receive lab results
  • Longitudinal customizable flowsheets
  • Integrated Peds dose calculator
  • Good selection of customizable documentation templates
  • Ability to customize pick-lists for diagnoses, medications, diagnostic orders
  • Ability to create reminders for chronic disease management

Now that you have pages and pages of all sorts of lists, is it time to call that 1-800 number from the glossy add? Not yet. If you were shopping for a car, you could of course stop by the first dealer you see and have him educate you on your choices of minivans and SUVs. A smart shopper would first consult something like Consumer Reports or JDPower, talk to friends and family and if you are like me, look at cars on the highway and every parking lot you happen to find yourself in. Alas, there is no Consumer Reports for EHRs. If you search the web for advice, you will come across a bewildering array of “free” advice sites, most of them requiring that you “register” before obtaining any help. Although it is usually very hard to tell, virtually all of them are there to lure you into buying something, be it EHR software, or services, or unrelated products and sometimes they are just collecting addresses for marketing purposes. Stay away from anything you are not already registered with by virtue of being a practicing physician. But there are some respectable ways to get good advice too.

Colleagues - The best sources for collecting names of EHRs that you should consider (or rule out immediately) are your colleagues. Seek out physicians that are using EHRs and ask for information. Most will be eager to share stories and give you advice. If you subscribe to a specialty listserv, or forum, you could find good information there too. For these, make sure you know the person presuming to give you advice. Sometimes you can learn a lot by just following conversation threads. You should be able to come up with a couple of good prospects and a couple of names to stay away from.

Medical Associations – The AAFP for example has a great EHR survey they publish every year. It is completely untainted by any vendor involvement. You have to be a member to access the results and they are mostly geared to family practice and general Internal Medicine, but pertinent to most physicians. The most recent results are from 2009 and 2010 is due out soon. Find a way to get to that survey. Other specialty associations have their own surveys. They should also have good resources and articles to help you with the process. Some have partnerships with certain vendors. Do not assume that those vendors are necessarily better than others.

CCHIT – CCHIT is now one of three EHR certifiers, but their private certification is still the Cadillac of the industry. Unlike the government certification, which is pretty bare bones, CCHIT certifies for a multitude of functionalities and for several specialties, such as Cardiology, Pediatrics, Dermatology and Behavioral Health. Their website allows you to play with different Non-Functional Requirements to narrow the field down, and CCHIT is vendor neutral, so try it out and look for vendors that voluntarily committed to keeping up their comprehensive CCHIT certification (latest level is 2011).

Regional Extension Centers (REC) – Every state has one and it is funded by the government for the specific purpose of helping you out. If you are a primary care physician, you may be able to get some free consulting, but in any case you should be able to get some good information and a list of EHRs the REC selected. Those EHRs may, or may not work for you, but this is another data point in your research.

Remember to update and augment your original lists as you learn new things. When you aggregate all the information you now have, you will discover that you have in hand a list of about three to six EHR vendors that you are ready to contact and check out. If that glossy add with the 1-800 number is from one of them, then by all means go ahead and call now. Otherwise, toss it and never look back.

In part II, we’ll kick some tires, look under the hood and go for a test drive.


  1. Here are some useful links to unbiased EHR surveys and reviews from medical associations and trade groups:

    AAFP 2009 EHR Survey

    ACP AmericanEHR Ratings

    Medscape Physician Survey

    The AAFP Center for Health IT EHR Reviews

    AAP EHR Reviews

    Certification Sites:

    ONC Certified Product List>
    Stick with "Complete EHR" in that list.

    CCHIT Certified Product List
    Look for those that, in addition to being ONC-ATCB certified, are also CCHOT certified for 2011.

  2. Margalit, great post. There is certainly a serious lack of information on the complex issue of purchasing an EMR system for the typical medical practice. When asked "what EMR system should I buy?" I have always answered off-the-cuff with "That's like asking what kind of car should I buy? What are your needs? Your wants?" This is a great article to refer to. Thanks.