Monday, June 18, 2007

More on EMR's

I have been having discussions recently, with knowledgeable people, on one of my favorite topics: the EMR. One person, a patient of mine, was an EMR purchaser for a major hospital, so I think she may know something. Here are some salient points we came up with that you may want to consider before committing to an EMR.

  • Up-front cost: Of course this is important and obviously so, yet people still get mesmerized by the bells and whistles of a system and the vendor's claims of "ROI." Here's the real deal. If you are a primary care physician who makes, on average, $35 per encounter, you will need to see an additional 4285.7 patient visits to offset the cost of the $150,000 EMR featured in this NYTimes article. In other words, a primary care doc will need to see 12 additional patients per day x 7 days per week just to pay for the initial EMR cost.

  • Up-grade costs: Have you ever wondered why Windows keeps changing it's perfectly good operating system, for example from XP to Vista, every couple of years. Windows does this to make money. Of course, when you have a personal computer, you are under no obligation or professional stress to up-grade, plus, as a consumer, the up-grades are relatively inexpensive. Now consider your EMR that you purchased for $5000 to $150,000, up-front. Every 6 to 12 months, without question, the vendor will hit you for an upgrade. Perhaps upgrades in the first year or 2 will be free, but they won't be free forever. Sooner or later, they'll get you for possibly thousands per year in upgrade costs. And what are you going to do; not pay it and let your system crash? Will you switch to another vendor and start again? I don't think so. You will be held hostage!

  • Service contracts: Have you ever called, for example Dell Computers. If you don't have a service contract, they can charge $100 per 15 minutes. Dell has great customer service and their setrvice contracts are cheap: ~$250 per 3 years. Now consider this; have you ever seen anything "for medical use" be cheap? Absolutely not! Service contracts for EMR's typically start in the $500 per 6 month range and go upwards. I know of one that costs $12,000 per year. That is more than some docs pay for liability insurance. And you have to pay this because the systems break down--even the "good" ones.

  • Reliability: I'm actually talking about the vendors now. EMR sales are expected to skyrocket in the next 6-7 years, so we are in a sort of gold rush, with the EMR vendors being analogous to the prospectors of 1848. Many vendors, in fact most, will not survive. Now I want you to imagine that you select an EMR for $5000--cheap for EMR's--and the software comes with free upgrades and service for 12 months. You convert everything to electronic after hours and hours of effort and money, and then the company stops answering their phones when you need them. Now what do you do? You have all this critical information that may or may not be transferable to another EMR program. In other words, choose your vendor carefully and if possible, get psychic powers.

  • Ownership: Some companies are promoting use of their own EMR online services. These services are cheaper as there is no expensive software or hardware to purchase upfront, and there are no installation costs, but I have some concerns. One major concern is: who owns the records; me, the patients, or the vendor? You better read that contract carefully, or better yet, get a lawyer to read it. You may surprised. Medical charts--paper ones--that were stored in Iron Mountain Storage after a California HMO implosion in the early 1990's cost millions to retrieve, and some charts were lost forever. Personally, I don't see a difference between electronic vs paper storage. Storage is storage and physical possession is everything.

  • Work-flow: Most EMR's that I have used or demo'd force the user to alter their own typical work-flow routine to fit that of the computer program, rather than vice-versa. Now this may not be a bad thing, but I know many very excellent physicians who can crank out patient visits and still leave the office on-time, with charts completed at the end of the day. For these docs, which I believe are the silent majority, EMR's would actually add inefficiency.

There, I have said my peace. And I am a staunch believer in EMR's. But they are just too expensive and if they are supposed to benefit the payers, as Senator Clinton points out, then let the payers purchase them for us. Until that happens, proceed with caution.

Hope you enjoyed the post.

The IU.

PS: Thanks SeaSpray for the Father's Day Wish.