Over the past several years (and especially with Meaningful Use) there has been a fairly significant shift in the attitudes of ambulatory physicians who are making the leap to electronic health records. The hospital-based physicians (and ambulatory physicians who see patients in the hospital) are a different story. They’re a captive audience who has always been subject to hospital control and who has a long-standing history of adapting to things imposed by various Big Brother entities: the Joint Commission, the hospital’s formulary team, insurance and hospital case managers, etc.
Those physicians have done pretty well adapting to electronic documentation, computerized order entry, and the like while in the hospital. Hospitals have also tended to phase their implementations over the scope of years – deploying in a modular fashion with lab, nursing documentation, CPOE, and provider documentation all done as separate initiatives. Ambulatory docs who dislike the hospital’s conversion have been able to escape back to the relative safety of private practice and cling to their paper charts.
As ambulatory physicians transition to EHR, though, they tend to deploy more rapidly – wanting to get rid of all the paper immediately, but also with a strong drive to keep the revenue stream steady. When I started deploying EHRs some time ago, we worked with early adopters who believed in the promise of electronic recordkeeping and were more willing to staff up, reduce patient load, or work longer hours to realize their goals. These physicians are now mature users who are leveraging their EHRs to achieve advanced Patient Centered Medical Home designations, increase fee schedules through demonstrable quality, and improve patient satisfaction.
On the other hand, there are now thousands of physicians who previously found the idea of the EHR distasteful and feel forced to make the transition. Whether by peer pressure, payer requirements, or the threat of government-related penalties, they’re now implementing and with a significantly different strategy than may be prudent.
More often, I hear of physicians that want to implement a system fast, cheap, and easy. The rest of us who have done this for a while know that it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to do all three. Often these late adopters refuse to follow vendor advice, consultant advice, or frankly anyone’s advice. Convincing them to cut schedules or hire staff is a challenge. Ultimately, it’s the patients who suffer.
As the healthcare market consolidates, hospitals and health systems are looking to “align” (one of my least-favorite buzzwords) with community physicians to ensure profitable referral, ancillary, surgical, and inpatient revenue streams. Many are offering subsidies and other incentives to bring these providers onto EHR systems.
Often these practices don’t actually want to align, but are feeling cornered and desperate. Some have previously turned down acquisition offers from the same hospital and see taking a subsidized EHR as a way to be somewhat protected from burdensome federal requirements while maintaining at least some degree of autonomy. Others simply can’t afford an EHR without the subsidy. A last group is providers who’d like to be acquired but for various reasons aren’t suitable candidates, but hope that alignment (and sending a steady volume of referrals which of course cannot be spoken about) will result in being ultimately asked to the dance.
These physicians often deploy on an existing system-wide EHR. Since they’re late to the game, though, they haven’t been stakeholders in any of the decision-making that’s already occurred and often have less buy-in to the idea of group goals than those users who are actually part of the group.
Another angle is that even though subsidized, these physicians are paying customers with different expectations than employed physicians and different ideas about governance. Of course, this would have been true even if these subsidized physicians were early adopters, but the differences are magnified by them being late in the EHR game and feeling pressured to demonstrate Meaningful Use as quickly as possible.
I still go out on implementations and perform physician training on a regular basis. Until recently, most of the physicians I have worked with have treated me as a respected colleague who could assist them through the difficult transition. Some have even looked at me as some kind of EHR shaman, able to smooth their journey to the other side with mystical wisdom. Of course, there have always been a few docs who were borderline (or overtly) hostile, but they were few and far between and usually we could leverage their partners or peers to moderate their behaviors.
Lately I’ve run into more and more angry physicians who are completely resistant to the idea of the EHR transition even though they’ve agreed to go paperless. Some are passive-aggressive, but others are openly abusive. This manifests in a variety of ways – disruptive behavior, inappropriate comments during training (think middle school students with a substitute teacher), or refusing to be trained at all. I find the latter group the most frustrating because then they can’t figure out why the system is so hard to use and scream the loudest about lack of support.
Looking at the data on how many physicians are actually using EHRs in practice (let alone being robust users) we’re just approaching the midpoint. If what I’m seeing in the field is any indication, it’s only going to get tougher as the last-ditch adopters come through with increasingly unrealistic expectations and correspondingly difficult implementations.
I feel bad for the vendors and for the teams who have to support these folks (mine included.) I feel bad for the physicians who don’t want to transition to EHR and the staff members that have to work with them every day. But most of all, I feel bad for the patients who entrust them with their care. Regardless of what they think about the EHR, the IT team, or the government, I hope the angry docs remember that after all, it IS all about the patient.