Toward the end of last year some encouraging data started to emerge. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that thousands of physicians had signed up to participate in the meaningful use incentive program and the Department of Health and Human Services released statistics indicating that the number of physicians presently using EHRs had doubled since the incentive program launched in 2009.
This means we’re well on our to having a fully networked healthcare system in the, right?
Maybe not. The Medicare Payment Advisory Committee, an independent group that advises members of congress on matters relevant to Medicare, recently gave a presentation to lawmakers that throws some cold water on these overheated estimations of physician EHR use. In particular, the numbers indicate that many providers are having a hard time clearing some of the meaningful use hurdles.
According to the MedPAC presentation, 66 percent of hospitals have signed up to participate in the meaningful use program, but only 16 percent have actually received incentive payments. As for independent physicians, 25 percent have signed up with the program but only 6 percent finished qualifying for payments.
Now, it is difficult to tell from the numbers where these providers stand currently. Just because they have not yet received incentive payments doesn’t mean they are not using an EHR system for some advanced functions. It could simply be that they have not yet satisfied one or two of the program’s requirements.
However, the report does paint a much different picture than the one federal agencies have been pushing for the last few months. Far from being poised to achieve full adoption rates, the U.S. healthcare system still has a ways to go.
Figures on EHR adoption from HHS indicate that about 41,000 physicians are currently using the technology. This is a sizable percentage of the total healthcare workforce, so interest in the technology clearly remains strong. What’s less apparent is why these implementation totals are not necessarily translating into meaningful users.
The MedPAC numbers suggest that providers may simply be having a difficult time with some of the provisions of the meaningful use rules. The report does not mention how many doctors are currently using systems, only how many have signed up for the incentive program and how many have received payments.
It is understandable if some current EHR users are having a difficult time with some of the provisions of the regulations. The first stage of the meaningful use rules may impose a steep learning curve on physicians who have no experience using the technology.
However, there are plenty of resources available to doctors who are struggling with EHR implementation. Most vendors will provide a significant amount of technical assistance in getting a system up and running. The ONC has set up Regional Extension Centers across the country to provide IT help and consultation services. Even various professional groups offer tips and advice on successfully completing an IT initiative.
Taking advantage of these resources may play a key role in the ability of a practice to satisfy all of the meaningful use rules. Going it alone can be difficult. However, leveraging opportunities for help that exist may enable a technology initiative to go more smoothly.
When more physicians do take advantage of these resources the U.S. healthcare system may truthfully get on its way to becoming fully networked.