In Atlanta we are recovering from one of worst winter storms in many years. Weather events are financially devastating for a medical practice. Revenue completely stops while expenses continue without interruption. Today for the first time we saw patients in the office on a Saturday to recover a little.
During our 3 snow days this past week I decided to take on John Lynn’s challenge regarding what I would do if the Meaningful Use (MU) incentive money disappeared. There has been a range of responses including one person who wouldn’t change a thing about MU. However, recent data continue to support my long-held opinion that MU has been harmful to health IT and the EMR cause.
Think about where we were before MU was conceived. Six years ago the NEJM study cited by the designers of MU showed a 4% EMR adoption rate. Among EMR users the vast majority (72%-96%) reported a positive effect of EMR on patient care. Among EMR users physician satisfaction was 93%. Among EMR non-users, the major reasons for not getting an EMR included cost (66%), uncertainty regarding the return on investment (50%), and loss of productivity during implementation (41%).
Six years later, what has MU done for EMRs? Medical Economics recently released an EHR survey of 967 physicians polled in late 2013 with very disturbing results:
- 70% did not feel their EHR investment was worth the cost and the effort
- 73% would not re-purchase their current system
- 69% report coordination of care has not improved
- 65% do not believe EHR has improved quality of care. 45% believe EHR has made patient care worse
- 66% report financial losses resulting from EHR. 38% report significant losses.
- Lack of system functionality was the most common complaint among EHR users (67%)
- 45% of all physicians spent over $100,000 on EHR and 77% of the “largest” practices spent over $200,000. It is unclear whether this is the total practice cost or cost per physician. Increased staff costs and loss of productivity were also cited as major issues.
Also telling are data reported by CMS last May that a staggering 17% of all providers who attested for the 90 day period required for MU Stage 1 / Year 1 (2011) did not participate the following year. A CMS survey of these “non-returning providers” (NRPs) showed many of them gave up for reasons related to the MU program as well as reasons related to dissatisfaction with their EMRs.
Analysis of these 3 studies suggests that the satisfaction rate among EMR users has fallen from over 90% to about 30% over the past 6 years. The proportion of providers that believe EMR improves quality of care has fallen from 82% in 2008 to 35% in the 2013 ME survey. The misgivings of non-EMR-users in the NEJM 2008 study were proven valid among the dissatisfied EMR-users in the ME 2013 survey: high cost, poor return on investment and loss of productivity. Even 5 figure financial incentives can’t get MU / EMR participation beyond a very short time of 90 days.
How could EMR’s reputation among EMR users fall so far? The Meaningful Use program is solely responsible.
Go back to 2008 for a moment. Had the health IT market been left undisturbed, EMR vendors would have engaged their existing base of satisfied customers in order to improve their products and sell to new customers. This base of early EMR adopters was unique and special. Our practice was among those that had a fully functional EMR in 2007-2008. We shared a vision and saw the potential for information technology to improve health care. We had both the IT resources and the will to work hundreds of extra hours to build effective EMR systems from products that were almost useless as they came “out of the box.” We willingly accepted that proposition.
In 2008 the early adopters would have gladly offered their own practices as examples to demonstrate the value of EMR and help their vendors sell to new customers. This slow, evolutionary growth would have created a stable environment that allowed the health care system to safely assimilate the cultural and operational changes that EMR brings. This environment would have also supported stable evolution and improvement of EMR products. The result would have been modest but steady growth in the EMR market for decades to come.
But thanks to MU this never happened. Replacement of stable, natural market forces with MU incentives drove immediate, explosive short-term growth in the EMR market. But these MU-driven EMR purchasers are not like the practices before 2008 that freely chose to purchase a system. These practices had decided against EMR initially, at least partly because they lacked the IT resources to make EMR work for them. MU coerced them to purchase EMR against their better judgment.
I have spoken with many of these physicians. They do not share the inspiration and vision of the early adopters. They are rightly unhappy and cynical, forced by MU to spend huge amounts of money on unproven, underdeveloped EMR products that they did not want and were not prepared to properly use. To these practices the question of EMR’s potential is irrelevant. In their minds MU (and by association EMRs) lives next to HIPAA, SGR and RAC audits as another method for the government to intimidate doctors and intrude upon their practices.
The MU program gave EMR vendors what they wanted – legislation requiring hundreds of thousands of providers to buy EMR products, with no need to prove that those products do anything useful. But here’s the bad news: the Feds got what they wanted as well. Through MU they created an EMR industry that is dependent on government incentives and penalties to maintain a stream of new customers. This gives them complete control of the EMR market. There is more bad news. MU also destroyed the base of satisfied EMR customers from 2008, replacing it with a much larger base of unhappy, resentful customers.
So what happens as MU payments decrease with each passing year as MU requirements go up? Who can argue that the market won’t collapse without another EMR stimulus package? John Lynn’s question is appropriate and timely. MU incentives will indeed disappear over the next couple of years. How the EMR market will survive is not clear.