So your practice has decided to finally take the plunge and get an electronic health record. But with more than 300 software vendors to choose from, chances are you're racking your brain about what to do next.
Here's your guide to asking the right questions, to make sure you pick the EHR that's right for you. These are only a few of the many questions to ask an EHR vendor, but they touch on the critical information you should know as you embark on your technology shopping expedition.
What does it take to pick the right EHR? Savvy purchasers — those with years of experience with various technologies from multiple vendors — say it's a bit like choosing a life partner, as opposed to a dream date: go for shared goals and long-term compatibility instead of looks.
The federal government's meaningful use criteria, part of the EHR incentive program, may lead to more similarities than differences between EHR systems, but choosing the right system has not gotten any easier. Now, as always, finding the right system means finding the right vendor.
For Gina Tucker, a practice manager in Northampton, Mass., getting the right vendor meant taking a chance. In 2001, the five-physician practice she manages, Hampshire Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates, Inc., opted for an integrated EHR and practice management system. The vendor was new on the scene and still developing its product line, but the bet paid off, she says. Not only has that vendor grown into a top-10 player in physician EHR systems, but it continues to deliver the high levels of service and support that Tucker gambled it would.
Looking back, Tucker says it wasn't an entirely risky bet; in large part due to the method her practice used to select its EHR. Because the software for electronic medical records was still a work in progress a decade ago — much more so than today — Tucker and her practice's selection team looked as carefully at potential vendors' market strategies, as it did their products.
"We didn't go to software vendors and say 'here's what we want to fix,' but rather (we said), 'our goals are thorough documentation and staying on top of everything we need to so we can provide good patient care, be efficient, and keep improving,'" Tucker says. "We felt the company we chose was on the same path as we were to improvement."
Tucker says to look beyond a vendor's statements about being the best in the business, best in breed, and other similarly inflated phraseology. Instead, look at how much it invests in research and development of new products. Ask whether its product-development team includes seasoned pros with success in developing information technology for physician medical practices and similar environments.
"You want to feel that they understand your business," she says. "It's a feeling that you have a melding of philosophies, which goes well beyond any statements that a salesperson can make."
Scoping out vendors: a checklist
There are many questions you should ask vendors and other users to figure out what the right system — and vendor — is for you. Here's what Tucker suggests asking:
Questions to ask the vendor:
• How many practices use your system nationwide?
• What are the specialties and sizes (in number of physicians, not full-time equivalents) of practices using your system?
• How many users have switched to other systems and why?
• Are any physicians involved on a day-to-day basis in your research and development, implementation strategies, design, or other key areas?
• How does your company integrate ideas submitted by end users?
Next, here are questions to ask other users of the product (ask your vendor for references):
• Do you feel the vendor and its staff understand medical practice business and clinical challenges?
• Is it easy to reach someone from the company on the telephone?
• What is the number one reason you chose the system?
Train to perfection
Qualifying for the federal government's full complement of EHR Stage 1 meaningful use incentives might cover much of a new system's cost. Or it might not. It's all too tempting to cut corners on training costs to lower the acquisition cost of a new system. Don't do it, says technology consultant Rosemarie Nelson, with the Medical Group Management Association's Healthcare Consulting Group.
The train-the-trainer approach is necessary to build a core of in-house experts, but don't expect that a few people on your staff can adequately train the many others who need the knowledge, too, she says.
"There's way too much to absorb in a new EHR for one or two people to quickly get the big picture and be able to transmit that to everyone in the practice who needs the knowledge, which is pretty much everyone in the practice," Nelson says.
Make sure there is enough money in the proposal for the vendor to train several employees, she says.