Trendspotter: AMA To Give Small Practices a Helping Hand in Launching EHRs

March 3, 2010
Ken Terry

Small physician practices are less likely than big groups to have electronic medical records-and there’s a reason that goes beyond cost. They lack the resources and the technical knowledge to implement these complex systems. The support and training that vendors offer is frequently inadequate, especially for physicians who aren’t especially computer-savvy. And the vendors freely admit that they don’t have sufficient staff to cope with the expected influx of new EHR buyers who want to show meaningful use by 2011, when the government incentives start flowing.

Small physician practices are less likely than big groups to have electronic medical records-and there’s a reason that goes beyond cost. They lack the resources and the technical knowledge to implement these complex systems. The support and training that vendors offer is frequently inadequate, especially for physicians who aren’t especially computer-savvy. And the vendors freely admit that they don’t have sufficient staff to cope with the expected influx of new EHR buyers who want to show meaningful use by 2011, when the government incentives start flowing.

Under the HITECH provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the government is required to create health IT regional extension centers (HITRECs) across the country to help up to 100,000 primary-care physicians install EHRs in their practices. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has allocated nearly $600 million for this purpose, and 60 HITREC grants will be handed out by the end of March.

Some healthcare systems are taking advantage of the Stark exception to subsidize EHR purchases by non-employed staff physicians, and far more are trying to get their employed practices online. But in either case, the demands of working with a multitude of small practices to implement EHRs exceeds the capacities of most hospital IT staffs. Moreover, the hospital IT people have expertise in inpatient systems but know little about ambulatory-care EHRs.

The AMA is trying to help fill the gap by creating a new web portal that will “provide physicians access to information, products, services, and resources to help facilitate medical practice and ease adoption of health information technology.” While the AMA will give doctors access to e-prescribing and lab ordering applications via the portal, now in beta test mode, AMA’s partner, Dell Perot Health Care Systems, will help physicians implement their EHRs. According to Dell Perot, the AMA will initially offer its member an Allscripts EHR, and it appears that other products will be made available later.

No pricing was available at press time. But, since Dell Perot will host the EHRs on a remote server, upfront and maintenance costs will be lower than they would be if the program and the patient data were hosted on an in-office server.

The big question is how effective Dell Perot can be in working with small physician practices. Both companies have extensive experience in helping hospitals set up and integrate their systems, and Perot-which merged with Dell last year-has also done a lot of outsourcing work for hospitals. The company has also been helping some big healthcare systems, such as Memorial Hermann in Dallas and Tufts Medical Center in Boston, ramp up EHRs in the offices of affiliated physicians. But small independent practices outside the orbit of a healthcare system present a different set of challenges.

In an interview with Physicians Practice, Jamie Coffin, vice president of Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences, pointed out that Dell has helped computerize lots of small businesses in non-medical fields. Of course, that doesn’t mean too much, because EHRs and healthcare are much more complex than, say, a bookkeeping system in a restaurant chain.

Part of the small-practice solution, Coffin indicates, is to use remote training and support tools. Dell Perot will install the hardware, do a “brief touch” in the practice to get the software running, and then follow up online. This does not leave much room for change management or handholding, and practices that cannot figure out how to use the software quickly might drop it, as many have before. But based on Dell Perot’s success to date in working with healthcare systems, they’re hopeful that this approach will also click in private practices.

In any case, Coffin points out, the AMA-Dell venture will fill a need as physicians scramble to show meaningful use. “The real question is whether EHR vendors can scale to the number of installations they have to do over the next 36 months,” he says. “It’s not a cost question for them, it’s an issue of whether they can scale to the demand. They’re going from 1,000 implementations a year to 10,000-20,000 or more. That’s one reason why they’re looking at companies like Dell and Perot.”