A recent article by Elizabeth Hipp decried the so-called hidden costs of free EMR systems.
As a physician who uses a free EHR, I chuckle at stories trying to drum up fear and uncertainty about these systems. Though free EHRs have become mainstream, there still seems to be a clever news angle in highlighting their supposed pitfalls. We live in a time when Google offers all of its services online for free, but many doctors question that you can have a free EHR with no strings attached.
I’ve been with a free EHR system since 2008, back when the product had little more than scheduling. Today, it’s a full, certified EHR with the same core features as paid alternatives: charting, scheduling, e-prescribing, billing, laboratory integrations and patient health records. None of these features have any added costs. I have heard of EHRs that claim to be free, then charge you for premium functionality, but this hasn’t been the case with any this EHR’s upgrades.
I do see banner advertisements at the bottom and the sides of the screen in my EHR. About one in five of these are for pharmaceutical brands or other external companies. Occasionally these ads have actually brought some benefit to my care, like sponsored co-pay coupons for my patients. The ads aren’t disruptive to my busy workflow — as a physician, I’m used to managing communications from healthcare companies.
The real hidden benefit of using a free EHR is that the vendor has an incentive to make set-up and ongoing use of the system as easy as possible. For a free EHR to be successful, they need to make sure customers are using the EHR and connected to partners like labs and billing services. The relationship doesn’t stop with a signed contract.
As a result, my free EHR has done consistently well in customer satisfaction surveys like Black Book Rankings and KLAS. Their support is free and highly available. I have also been pleased to find that they release updates to their product nearly every month, often adding big new functionality like imaging center connectivity in this past month. These upgrades are available without having to install new software since the product is fully web-based.
Many of these features are ideas of the user community. As I’ve been with the company since its early days, there have been headaches I experienced with it over the years. There have been some features which slowed down my workflow and some areas where the EHR was missing functionality I needed. I don’t think that experience is any different than with a paid EHR — except for the bottom line.
Many of these challenges have been addressed with the company’s updates, some have not. But even while I find myself encountering stumbling blocks along the way, I am reassured knowing how quick and responsive they have been about needed changes in the past. They listen to their users to keep them engaged, and the bigger they grow the more they have been able to do that.
The biggest benefit to using a free EHR is that it removes a major cost from operating my medical practice. Without the burden of tens of thousands of dollars a year in EHR expense, I’m able to be more innovative in the practice of medicine and can stay independent when other medical practices are turning to hospital acquisition. And that’s priceless.
David Wyatt is a family physician.