Four years ago, pediatrician Jeffrey T. VanGelderen and his partner at the Children's Medical Group of Saginaw Bay in Michigan were looking for an EHR for their practice. Before shopping, they had a difficult decision to make: Find an EHR compatible with their current practice management system or buy an EHR and at the same time, buy a new management system designed to work with it.
In an effort to increase compatibility between the two systems, VanGelderen and his partner chose the latter option, going with brand new systems. They first investigated the EHR offering from their management system vendor, and found it user-friendly, but not as robust as the newer software from another company.
"In a lot of cases like ours, practices already have a management system in place and have had it there for a long time," he says. "When you make the decision to go to an EHR and fully integrate it, you usually go to another [management system]."
In 2008, Children's Medical Group debuted its new practice management system and less than nine months later, had its EHR online with the two systems working collaboratively together.
VanGelderen says the result has been great. The cost of the two new systems already has been more than made up for, he says, and in fact, the new systems have freed up staff time through better efficiencies in the software.
"We are using that time for better quality of care, like follow-ups and identifying patients who need well checks, and our nurses are doing more patient education versus paper shuffling," he says.
If you are considering implementing an EHR at your practice and want one that works with your current management system, how much of an investment should you make? Our experts weigh in with two trains of thought.
Assess your needs
You wouldn't make a big capital investment in a medical device without a little research on cost, use at your practice, and training, right? Well, our experts say when it comes to weighing a potential relationship between your practice management system and an EHR you also need to do your homework.
Fred Pennic, a healthcare IT consultant and technology blogger, says if you like your current practice management system, make a complete assessment of what it will mean to bring an EHR online also. This includes ensuring you have the proper resources to support it, in terms of IT staff or other employees, knowing what your licensing agreement will cost you, and estimating training hours required to get any new system up and running.
You also need to weigh the pros and cons for your practice, adds Don Sickle, a former EHR specialist with national consulting firm Welch Allyn. Sure your current system is all paid off and familiar to staff, but does it also have lingering problems that require tricks and shortcuts by your staff — costing time and money just to get it to work? If so, perhaps it is time for an upgrade, Sickle says.
If you are ready for an EHR, both Pennic and Sickle advise taking the same first step as Children's Medical Group — call your current practice management system vendor to inquire about its EHR offering. If you are happy with one of the vendor’s products, you may like a companion that works similarly and is more likely integrated than two systems from two different vendors.
Sickle, who was also president of advisory firm EHRInsider, says two different vendors means more "interfaces" between products so they can communicate, which isn't always a good thing.
"Interfaces are all links in a chain, and eventually, one of them will be weak somewhere at some point," he says. "The key is to have as few links in this technological chain as possible."
When calling your existing practice management system vendor to inquire about its EHR offering, Sickle advises inquiring how long the vendor has had the product in place and whether the EHR was purchased from an out-of-business company — making it less likely to work seamlessly with your practice management system. Just because it is from the same vendor doesn't mean the systems will work together in perfect harmony.
If the vendor does have a product you are happy with, schedule a Web demo, Sickle says, or even an onsite visit to your practice so you can learn more about the EHR and how it will fit into your practice's current operations.
Time for a change
But what if, during that assessment, you find that your current practice management system is not as efficient as when you bought it years ago? Then it may be time for a change.