Meaningful Use piles the pressure on US healthcare providers

Meaningful use, the $30 billion US investment programme in Electronic Health Records, has reached a crossroads.  Where it goes next could have important implication for the whole healthcare IT industry.

With $21 billion spent by the Office of the National co-ordinator so far meaningful use has reached maturity and is coming under intense national scrutiny.

Begun back in 2011 as part of the HITECH health IT investment initiative, itself part of the US economic stimulus act, meaningful use has accelerated adoption of EMRs in hospitals and physician offices, with 80% of hospitals having received incentive funds and 50% of physician offices.

Advocates say that in just three years meaningful use has enabled the US healthcare system to reach a critical mass and achieve a tipping point.

Meaningful use comes in three stages, each more demanding than the last.  Stage one set fairly basic requirements that most healthcare providers were able to meet by going out and buying an electronic health record system and beginning to use it.

Stage two, due to come into force in 2014, however goes much further than use of electronic records, focusing on sharing them — with different parts of the hospital, with other hospitals, and with patients

Stage two also creates more clinical quality measures to track; suppliers must demonstrate interoperability (both creating and pushing records as well as consuming and populating them) with at least one other EHR, and systems must let patients view, download and transmit their own electronic records.

Stage three of meaningful use, due in 2016, raises the bar even further with a focus on improving quality, safety, and efficiency, leading to improved health outcomes.

Healthcare providers and suppliers are struggling to meet the demanding stage two requirements in full.  A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 13 percent of physicians have an EHR that meets stage two criteria.

Should policy makers consolidate on progress achieved over the past three years, and ensure benefit is achieved from systems now in use; or should they double up efforts on interoperability, clinical quality, driving workflow improvements, and patient enablement?

A significant number of critics say the surging adoption numbers mask some real problems, including many users unhappy with the usability of EHR systems that have bought and installed to achieve meaningful use incentives.

Some healthcare providers have found that the electronic record systems they implemented to met stage one don’t have the functionality or are not user friendly enough to meet the requirements of later stages.

John Moore, managing director of Chilmark Research, believes the short-term stimulus monies have acted like steroids and have created a boated “false market” that led many providers to implement rigid, inflexible EHR systems, with poor usability and customer service to boot.

In an interview with CIO magazine he added that incentives mean EHR vendors have not been forced to innovate sufficiently and ensure that they deliver a great user experience.

This view is supported by a recent RAND Health survey that concluded many clinicians are not happy with EHRs. The remedy, RAND Health concludes, is better EHR usability.

A 2013 report by Black Book Rankings, meanwhile, suggested that as many as 17% of medical practices were so frustrated with their new electronic record systems they were planning to rip and replace them.

Others worry that meaningful use has widened the digital divide in US healthcare.  Meaningful use only covers healthcare providers receiving Medicare funding. Behavioral health, most pediatricians and long-term care providers are not covered.

Other concerns focus on rural and critical care providers falling behind on bringing the investment needed for the next stage of meaningful use.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that meaningful use is just one of a wave of initiatives hitting the industry simultaneously.  New government requirements, a decline in reimbursement and massive change in the delivery system, including a huge wave of mergers are all occurring at once.

Added to this entire industry also due to implement ICD10 in October, a change that carries huge costs for   A recent report suggested that physician practices in particular would struggle to meet the cost.  ICD10 implementation has already been delayed once.

Russ Branzell, president of the College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME), says some CIOs are struggling with the degree of change.  “The amount of change hitting us at once means there is a perfect storm for some.”

Braznell says that CHIME still strongly supports meaningful use, but Healthcare CIOs are facing multiple challenges piling up on them at once.