I’ve been working with several challenging clients over the last several weeks. All of them have been playing various versions of the blame game: clinical blames IT, IT blames operations, operations blames clinical, some blame the consultant, most blame the government and payers, and everyone blames the vendor.
I think I’ve finally put my finger on the underlying problem: learned helplessness. Essentially, learned helplessness happens when a subject undergoes repeated painful stimuli and loses the ability to employ escape or avoidance behaviors. The subject feels they have lost control and ultimately stops trying.
In the case of healthcare IT, the repeated painful stimuli have taken the form of multiple rounds of governmental regulations, reduced physician payments, increasing numbers of risk-bearing arrangements, and shrinking organizational pocketbooks in response to greater uncertainty. The complexity of the environment in which healthcare organizations are asked to work makes it difficult to manage all the details unless one has full-time teams dedicated to doing so. Most smaller organizations simply can’t afford that kind of infrastructure, so they try to cobble together resources from local and state medical societies, professional organizations, and their IT vendors to try to make sense of all of it.
Many of these organizations are struggling to make sense of it themselves, depending on their size and level of funding. Based on my clients’ experiences, the amount of information put forth by EHR vendors ranges from comprehensive to zero. One vendor was even worse than zero, putting out information that was incorrect and therefore placed their clients at risk. Clients who use web-based platforms where the vendor upgrades them automatically have one set of issues, where they have to keep up with the vendor’s plans and be ready to roll out workflows over which they have little control. At the other end of the spectrum are clients who can choose when to upgrade and which features to enable, which can lead to analysis paralysis.
Provider organizations are understandably worried about the certification status of their vendors. A recent surfing of the Certified Health IT Product List shows a shrinking number of vendors who have completed the most current certification. Those organizations that need 2015 Edition software installed before January 1, 2018 are understandably nervous, especially those that are large or complex. These are the kinds of organizations that are finding their way into my client pool, trying to completely avoid the pain of an upgrade by outsourcing the entire thing.
I’m not sure what other consulting organizations do, but the first thing I explain to these potential clients is that it’s very difficult to entirely outsource an upgrade (or a go live, or many other IT processes). There will always be parts of the project plan that require ownership and involvement by the client for best results. These steps may include decision-making around new features; training schedules; whether or not demonstration of mastery will be required; and user acceptance testing.
Regarding the latter, I’ve found that no matter how good your test scripts might be, there are always undocumented (and often aberrant) workflows that no one will know to test that will cause you heartburn on go-live day. The best way to avoid issues is to have actual end users perform user acceptance testing, rather than analysts or contractors.
Clients also need to have active involvement if there are decisions to be made around customizations. Whether to retire or retain customizations depends on whether the vendor’s workflows are equivalent to the customization or will create issues. Although a third party can make an objective analysis of the pros and cons, we sometimes don’t have the understanding of organizational culture that is needed to make the ultimate decision. I’m not saying we can’t do the majority of the heavy lifting for our clients, but we’re not going to allow them to completely abdicate all responsibility.
Another critical piece of upgrades that often involves organizational culture is the training plan. Clients need to take ownership of whether providers and end users will be pulled out of clinic for training, whether they will be compensated for training, whether it will be mandatory, etc. Although we as consultants can execute on whatever is decided, we can’t force an organization to mandate training for providers and ensure they actually show up. Sure, we can beg, plead, cajole, and even put monetary incentives around getting a client to perform one way or another, but ultimately the client has to participate in the process.
I went through the discovery process with a potential client last week, who has some major barriers between them and an upgrade. They’ve had near total staff turnover during the last two years and are three versions behind on their vendor’s software. They can’t find any previous project plans, testing plans, test scripts, or training plans from previous upgrades. They want to hire someone to “just take care of it,” but are reluctant to pay for the time it would take to document their existing workflows, create a testing strategy, determine a training plan, etc.
They keep mentioning that they are a community health center with limited budget, but don’t seem to appreciate that third-party vendors can’t give away their services for free. It makes for a very challenging business relationship, and with this particular prospective client, I’m not sure we’re ever going to have a relationship.
I’ve also run into some passive-aggressive clients who expect EHR vendors to spoon feed them information on various governmental programs while taking no accountability themselves. Although vendors can be good sources of information, clients still have to create their own policies and procedures and operationalize them to ensure compliance with regulatory programs. Your vendor isn’t going to stand behind your staff and make them perform medication reconciliation. Ultimately, provider organizations have to ensure that their staff members do their jobs and meet expectations.
My team provides first-line support for a handful of small practices. Sometimes there are basic workflow questions, such as, “How do I document XYZ?” Other times they’re outside of scope of EHR support.
One of those came in this week from a provider. He wanted to know how to document in the EHR that he disagreed with the nurse practitioner’s assessment and plan, and how to reject it and send it back to her. My team escalated it to me since it had medico-legal ramifications, so I got on the phone with the provider. I asked how he would have documented it in the paper chart and his answer confirmed what I suspected: he wouldn’t have documented it in the paper chart — he would have had a conversation with the NP, asked her to adjust the treatment plan, and then documented his review after the patient had been notified, etc.
I asked him why he would now want to have that liability-rich conversation in the electronic record rather than verbally. It took a few beats but he finally got my point, that there are certain things that just need to be done outside the EHR. But in some ways, he had become unable to think it through on his own, instead relying on the EHR’s workflows to direct him what to do.
I’m not sure what the answer is in these situations, but it’s good for those of us in the trenches to be able to commiserate.
What examples of learned helplessness are you seeing? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.