Real world meaningful use of health IT for physicians

by David C. Kibbe, MD, MBA

An article in the April 10, 2010 New York Times entitled “Doctors and Patients, Lost in Paperwork,” brought attention to what may be, in the near term, the Achilles heel of the plan to incentivize doctors for the “meaningful use of EHR technology.”

The article cited a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this past February, which asked a large cohort of physicians in internal medicine training programs about the time they were spending on clerical work, most of which is documentation in patient charts, both paper and electronic. A stunningly large 67.9% of the respondents reported that they were spending “in excess of 4 hours daily” on documentation, while only 38.9% reported spending an equal amount of time in direct patient care.

Now, I am fully aware that practice in the inpatient, hospital setting is not the same as practice in the office, clinic, or ambulatory care environment. Patients tend to be sicker and require more consistent attention while in the hospital, which often means more documentation is necessary. However, the study and the NYT article point to a real world problem that crosses all medical care settings and impacts physicians and other professional providers of all kinds: the enormous burden of documentation, clerical work, and administrative forms completion that impedes real care giving and makes health care less and less efficient even as we add more and more technology.

In both the inpatient and outpatient settings much of the time-consuming and bureaucratic red tape is the product of the fee-for-service health insurance system, in which there are multiple permutations of payment rules, including authorizations and other kinds of forms to be filled out, each health plans forms different from every other health plan. Particularly in the outpatient settings, and for small medical practices, the amount of paper and electronic data collection that must be done to be able to assure payment from a health plan can be staggering. One physician recently compiled this list of activities necessary for a “routine” office visit, CPT coded 99213: verify eligibility; check in; copay determination; get patient to nursing station; see physician; check out; claim to billing person; scrub claim; co-insurance; deductible; send bill to patient; collect remainder; scrutiny; privacy concerns; liability concerns; paperwork_paperwork_telephone calls_paperwork!

Here’s the point. In the real world, most physicians in private practice, and particularly those in primary care, feel that they are deeply under water and drowning in administrative trivia that contributes nothing to, but may often detract from, the quality of care experience that they are able to provide their patients. The administrative documentation is interruptive, mindlessly repetitive, often needlessly duplicative, and costly to the practice in terms of time, money, and nerves. This burden is one, and perhaps the major reason, that so many physicians are selling their practices to hospitals and integrated delivery systems. As one family physician recently put it to me, “I just couldn’t get to sleep at night worrying about all the insurance hassles. At least now that’s someone else’s worry.”

This is the thorny context into which ONC/HHS are launching the ambitious EHR incentive program legislated into existence by ARRA/HITECH, and which will pay physicians up to $44,000 over the next five years for the “meaningful use of certified EHR technology.” While I have expressed on several occasions my basic agreement with this program — in large part because it rewards the outcomes of the use of health IT and not just the purchase of software and hardware, and because I believe that it focuses health IT on quality improvement where it belongs — I have also raised the concerns of my fellow practicing physicians across the country, who must evaluate the incentive payments in terms that reflect their real day-to-day struggles to keep their practices afloat financially. Any additional administrative or bureaucratic burden placed upon the already nearly intolerable levels imposed mostly by the private insurance companies and health plans, is not being taken lightly by these doctors, I can assure you.

To be a “meaningful user” of EHR technology will undoubtedly be an easier task for some doctors, and a more difficult one for others. But let’s not fool ourselves. Meaningful use criteria include a significant number of new data entry/lookup/calculation tasks be taken on by all participating nurses and physicians, often using new and unfamiliar software programs and hardware devices. Meaningful use is at its core the obligation to collect a designated data set about each and every patient, using computers to store those data, and then assuming the obligation to perform a number of operations upon and with those data. The data include demographics, problems, medications, lab results, allergies, smoking history, and so forth. The operations include electronic prescription writing and refilling; sharing or exchange of the data with other providers for care coordination; reporting of quality measurements to Medicare; making available to patients pertinent personal health information and summaries of their visits; the use of clinical decision support tools and reminders for preventive care; and the recording of all orders for labs, referrals, medications, and radiological studies.

I want to be very clear that, in my opinion, were we to re-design health care in this country from the ground up, I would advocate that this set of data and this level of operational workflow using computerized systems would be nearly ideal as a starting point. Meaningful use puts the focus of health IT on some very fundamental information management tasks that are essential to knowing that the right things have been done for patients, at the right time, and with the right level of resources. It provides the basis for Clinical Groupware to flourish, which implies breakthrough improvement in care coordination and continuity. It is a system that could provide doctors with the tools to act smarter, not just harder, and for them to understand where their gaps in performance truly lie, which is the critical element in starting and sustaining an effort at improvement.

But here’s the rub. We’re not starting over. We’re layering these new requirements on top of an already dysfunctional, highly ingrained and overly-complex system that has shown itself remarkably and stubbornly resistant to reform. And in these circumstances, and for most physicians in medical practices today, Meaningful Use does not appear to them to be a way to practice smarter — it appears to be a path to just working harder.

Some might argue that today’s small medical practices represent a cottage industry that is entirely outdated and ought to be replaced by larger, corporate medical enterprises. They would say that it would be a salutary, even if unintended, outcome of ARRA/HITECH were small practices to be driven out of existence and the doctors, nurses, and staff in them integrated into larger and more productive groups. Perhaps there is some truth to this notion, and perhaps it is even part of the Obama administration’s and the ONC/HHS agenda.

However, I would argue that on balance just the reverse is true. Our nation’s small medical practices are the “canaries in the coal mine,” and their suffocation under the burden of bureaucratic complexity that is non-productive and simply cost-additive is a sign of real danger to everyone else in the industry, not just the smallest and most fragile among us. Forcing the small practices out of business doesn’t do anything to relieve the bureaucratic and administrative complexity in the system, it simply moves it to another location, where it will remain a drag on the new and larger units of care. We don’t have the numbers, but anecdotally it is evident that some physicians who sell their primary care practices to hospitals do so as a prelude to early retirement and as the last straw in a chain of events that has ended in failure, at least with respect to their expectations for a career as a physician. We may be actually undergoing an invisible shrinkage in our primary care work force right now.

What I would suggest is this: instead of rushing headlong into a clash that further extinguishes the ability of small medical practices to survive economically, and at worst may significantly diminish the nation’s primary care capacity at the precise time when we need more of it, the current Congress and White House should work together on a rational trade-off between insurance related hassles and the new work associated with adoption of EHR technology.

Our national leaders should understand that unless duplicative, wasteful, and completely non-productive documentation is streamlined and significantly reduced, the nation’s small and medium size medical practices will likely sit on the sidelines of ARRA/HITECH — not because the money is too little, or the technical help offered insufficient, but because they simply don’t have the cycles to take on the new paperwork (even if it’s computerwork). If that happens Meaningful Use will be at risk of becoming a failed experiment that merely lined the pockets of the highest utilizing, and therefore highest profit, physician groups and hospitals, along with the legacy EHR vendors who they favor.

My guess is that physicians all across the country would applaud an all-out effort by Congress and the Obama administration to simplify administrative/claims workflow and reduce insurance paperwork, and that they would look at the EHR incentive programs with a much less jaundiced eye if they knew that their overhead costs for billing and claims submission were to be cut in half. It will take bold action to bring this about, but it’s time to do it. Insurance reform is meaningless unless we drive much of the administrative costs out of the system. And unless we do, asking America’s physicians to accept more paperwork isn’t realistic.

David C. Kibbe is Senior Advisor of the American Academy of Family Physicians and founding Director of the Center for Health Information Technology.

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