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EMRs costly to health system

A recent New York Times article caught my eye the other day.  The author focused on the seeming corruption of physicians bilking patients out of tons of money for unnecessary procedures and the havoc wreaked on the American public as we try to keep the rising costs of healthcare down.

The most interesting part of the piece was the amount of blame placed on doctors as the culprits (which in the extreme examples cited was probably warranted).  Of course, as an industry insider, I can tell you that there was so much under the surface that the writer either failed to comprehend, did not know about, or simply chose to ignore.  Judging by the comments from medical providers, I wasn’t alone in my thinking.

Although not her fault, the author bought into MGMA data that was grossly wrong, for example.  I can’t imaging too many dermatologists making just $175,000 annually in 1995.  From a wasted $800 fee that my clinic had to pay to gain access to a data set when we tried to offer a competitive salary to an endocrinologist in our clinic in 2011, I can tell anyone that the data we viewed grossly overestimated the average endocrinologist salary.  The MGMA data we bought was based on only 15 doctors in only 5 practices in the entire mid-Atlantic region who were apparently making an average of over $300,000 annually.  A Medscape survey quoted a more believable $168,000 annually for an endocrinologist.

I have to apologize for the rather longwinded intro to my EMR thought of the day, which is the cost of EMRs to the healthcare system in America. It seems that not too long ago it was much cheaper to use paper charts. Currently, most EMR systems are simply expensive recording tools. Some of them don’t even really generate insightful or easy to read medical notes, although what they do produce may be argued by some EMR vendor companies and end users to be some form of documentation that loosely qualifies for generating a bill for an office note or medical procedure (wide spectrum of quality here).

Some EMR systems are free but most are costly, either lump sum up front with ongoing annual maintenance fees, or pay-as-you-go monthly rentals of depository databases where data from medical notes is stored. Why is the medical establishment wasting all of this money when research has shown again and again that EMR systems do not produce more safety or efficiency of providing healthcare for anyone?

With incentive programs from the US government driving and pushing doctors to set up their own EMR systems for the past 4-5 years, unfortunately, this has been a horribly misguided, misplanned, and costly experiment by probably well meaning individuals who found it un-PC to admit their mistakes. Personally, I wish the government had stayed out of it and let the market forces do what they do best, provide cheaper and cheaper hardware and software options over time until the value of EMR systems eventually sunk or swam the market on their own.

I personally use a free version of an EMR system, which works fairly well (with various glitches here and there during periodic system upgrades). However, I am in the minority since most of my colleagues in the Washington, DC area are either still working on paper charts or have shelled out gazoomba bucks to use a costly EMR system. I am willing to wager that the DC market is not too different from everywhere else in America in that respect. Although I love my EMR system for its organization and ability to electronically prescribe medications with a few clicks of the mouse, I think it remains equally important to consider that the EMR experiment in America is largely failed to produce any significant tangible results and only costs the entire system more, which in the end will be passed on to the consumer.

No EMR system makes doctors more money. The carrot and stick incentive model that the U.S. government used to promote EMR use is small and will be short lived. With ongoing EMR costs to medical providers, this technology has already begun placing another money suck on the healthcare system. Paper and ink are far cheaper by simple math. The only way it makes fiscal sense to continue the EMR market as a cost saving measure is to make all EMR systems of zero cost to the medical providers who use them, which will probably never happen. This is the only way that additional costs cannot be passed on to patients (cleverly couched, of course by well meaning doctors who need to keep their own costs down). Challenging as it may seem, I am hoping that someday someone can think of a positive solution to this important problem.

January 21, 2014 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

Sandals, the Middle East and electronic medical records — symbols of partnership

Sandals… what a powerful symbol for today’s blog post.  Apolis Middle East Project is an interesting short film that documents the partnership for business purposes of two groups of workers on each side the Israeli-Palestinian divide.  The product that these sides are working together to bring to market is, simply, sandals.  As in, basic footwear thousands of years old in concept.  The oldest known sandals were found in Fort Rock Cave in Oregon, about 10,000 years old.

On the surface, the short film seems to have a quaint, gee-whiz, aww-shucks, can’t-we-all-just-get-along feel.  However, it reminded me of the partnership between doctors and the software vendor companies that make electronic medical records. One group can’t be successful without the cooperation of the other group.

Doctors need EMR vendors to provide a useful and user-friendly product that will help document the healthcare and decisionmaking of doctors. EMR vendors need doctors to bring life and usefulness to their product. But when the partnership happens, modern healthcare that affects millions of lives for the better is allowed to unfold.

A popular view of electronic medical records by doctors is one of just another thing getting in the way of good healthcare because they take additional time and training to use well. But when you think about it, this partnership is really very important if we want to make the world a better, safer place for us all to live and share.  EMR vendors make it possible for doctors to touch patients lives in a safe and well documented way.  Doctors provide healthcare to all, bringing the impact of EMR vendors to millions of patients every day, including even the EMR vendors themselves.  🙂

January 11, 2014 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

Electronic medical records with community health and the environment in mind

My thought for today focuses on how using electronic medical records helps us maintain the health of our communities by keeping the environment in mind, which ultimately promotes health for all.  Contrary to what some might think, you don’t have to write a prescription or perform a medical procedure to help keep patients healthy.

I recently stumbled upon a thought-provoking company, Toms Marketplace.  Toms purports itself to be “a different way to shop”.  Established just recently in 2013, Toms’ great philosophy is to use profits from the sale of their community-centered products to give back to local communities in multiple ways.  For example, some of their toy sales support reforestation.

On a deeper level, aren’t we getting at some of the same grassroots issues by voluntarily using EMR systems that attempt, in their purest form, to be paperless?  Yes, EMRs can save trees and the environment in Honduras and elsewhere, and that has to be a good thing.

Trees should be a priority.  They are objects of beauty.  They provide oxygen for us to breath.  They provide shade on a hot day, which, depending on where you are in the world, can even save lives.  They help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus reduce global warming (yes, it probably does exist!) and all of its associated problems.  We are no longer living in the world of 1000 AD, and if people continue to use the world’s natural resources with abandon, then there can be consequences.

Thus, EMR users should revel and keep in mind a simple fact — that simply by getting away from the use of paper charts, they are touching the world for the better every day … keystroke by keystroke … tree by tree … and life by life.

child tree

January 5, 2014 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

FCC highlights ONC Office for Consumer e-Health plans for 2014

One of the things I would like to get back in the habit of in the new year is to contribute more again to this blog, which I started in 2009 with help from John Lynn at  Part of the challenge of keeping an ongoing stream of thoughts here has been both my busy life as an active provider of subspecialty healthcare, the growth of my practice as a business, and most importantly the emergence of new ideas for consideration and writing.

Luckily, I have been able to find some novel sources recently, and so I am going to try to reach out to these resources more often to gain insight and ideas for new and interesting topics on which to blog.

One of these sources recently highlighted an interview with Lygeia Ricciardi, the ONC Director of Consumer eHealth.  The ONC is under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services.  Ms. Ricciardi recently attended the FCC’s mHealth Innovation Expo in Washington, DC, on 12/6/13.  She highlighted work on policies for mobile health apps and cited a goal of helping to reach everyday people and empower them to improve their ability to participate in their own healthcare.

M-health apps are currently under voluntary control in whether or not their developers follow ONC guideines for design. Such apps may help patients, who are now often referred to as “consumers”, in such tasks as shopping for good-quality healthy food and reading nutrition labels.  In 2014, the ONC Office of Consumer e-Health plans to launch a website for helping patients find where to gain access to their own health data online.  Such information can include medication lists, laboratory reports, and other records.  Ms. Ricciardi likens this initiative to the “Blue Button” project that targets making medical data available to veterans at VA hospitals.

Access remains a key concern since once patient data is downloaded through a third-party app, such data will then by definition not be protected under HIPAA.  A third-party app developer will automatically gain access to this data during the process.

Ms. Ricciardi also cited possible other uses for mHealth apps, including helping people make participating in the healthcare both fun and interactive.  Examples were provided of apps that can help patients play games to compete against each other to see who can follow healthy habits better, e.g. who can exercise more, check blood pressure more, lose more weight, and check their blood sugars more often (for diabetic patients).  She further stated that consumers are being brought into the ONC process for m-health app policy development on a regular basis to ensure that there is some public guidance for what is and is not desired.  She cited the new paradigm, often quoted by now, that a cultural shift is changing towards more shared decision making in healthcare and giving more power to patients to participate actively in their healthcare rather than being passive bodies directed by healthcare professionals.

She encouraged individual patients/consumers to get more actively involved in their own healthcare.  According to Ms. Ricciardi, although the current medical environment is still mostly of two separate worlds, with little sharing of medical information between medical practitioners and patients, the coming world of m-health apps promises much potential for changing this.

December 29, 2013 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

7 Tips to Help Improve EHR Etiquette

It’s been a while since I’ve written, but only because my practice has been booming lately and I’ve barely had a moment to breathe here in DC.  But I’m back now, and for who knows how long given the waves tossing on the sea of digital medical practice!

Patient engagement continues to be one of the most common complaints about EMR software.  There was even a mention of the frustrations in a previous post on Happy EMR Doctor.  Many physicians say that it interferes with patient interactions and that now most of their time is spent looking at a computer monitor and updating charts.  This causes frustration for all parties – patients and physicians – because doctors did not sign up for computer duty when they went to medical school and patients expect a doctor’s full attention during visits.

Software Advice, a website that reviews medical software, launched a survey on how to improve doctor-patient interactions in the EMR era and the results are finally in.  See below for the top seven tips received on maintaining quality relationships:

1. Position your computer between you and the patient:  No brainer here.  Face the patient during interactions.  Take the time to plan where your equipment will go so that this possible.

2. Invest in mobility:  Whether it’s a small rolling desk, small tablets or other lightweight tools, choose equipment that helps you move around.  A laptop may cost an extra buck but can be worth the investment.

3. Delegate as much as possible:  The objective is to interact with the patient as much as possible.  Have staff members enter the medical history, medications, prior procedures, etc. prior to the patient’s visit so you don’t have to during the appointment.

4. Dictate as much as possible:  Talk with the patient while scribes enter the information or use dictation software.  These allow you to focus more on the patient.

5. Ignore the computer when you first enter the room:  Chat with your patient for a few minute before you start recording information in the digital record.

6. Ask about previous complaints:  If the patient information is pre-loaded, look over it before entering the room. If they have open complaints, ask them about the issues to close them out in the emr. This reaffirms to the patient that you care.

7. Finish the chart in the room:  This can help to answer any other questions that might come up so patients feel like they have been listened to.

All in all, EMRs take some getting used to.  Once a physician develops a rhythm with the software, every patient interaction becomes easier.  Focus on the tasks as they come, and remember, practice makes perfect.

March 6, 2013 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

EMRs’ Slippery Slope of Cloning Notes

Given all of the recent hubbub regarding cloning of medical office notes using electronic medical records systems, I thought I would write in with my opinion on this topic. You know, just as one fabulous new technology comes about that enables much more efficient documentation of patient encounters in physicians offices, it seems like critics are quick to try to take away that ability from doctors. Most doctors work hard at what they do and are just trying to do a good job in providing the best of care using all the modern digital tools available.

Since there are no official published guidelines in this area, it seems yet another of many many MANY (did I mention many?) gray zones in the world of digital and mobile health technology.

Like it or not folks, the cut-and-paste function available on any computer is here to stay. It’s up to physicians and other providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants to choose to use this technology responsibly. Furthermore, I believe that it is not impossible to do so. That would only be logical. Otherwise, we could never acquire anything that made our lives as providers a little easier.

I understand that the Medicare system is practically bankrupt as it is and seeks to minimize fraudulent payouts. I also recognize that there are nefarious individuals out there posing as medical providers who can crank out EMR notes that are identical in a mass-production fashion in order to financially rob the system again and again.

However, let’s not take an anti-EMR philosophy.  Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I don’t have the perfect solution, but rather then forbidding medical providers to use the technology in a powerful way to see more patients with less busywork at the end of the day that does not benefit patients whatsoever, I think we need to put more thought into solving this problem. What do they expect doctors to do with EMRs anyway?  Write everything from scratch every time?  Such an approach would be both nonsensical and naive.  And the solution should not be to withdraw the technology or force doctors to do things that are unconventional.

On the contrary, we need guidelines that make sense and do not add needless work to already harried medical professionals.  We need simplicity and not complexity.  We should not seek to recreate the debacle that some people came up with long ago that is the tax code-like nightmare of Evaluation & Management (E&M) guidelines, which are still quite gray in many areas.  We need to be able to empower doctors, NP’s and PAs even further with technology rather than retract abilities that the technology enables.

I’m purposefully not getting into specific examples in this post for the sake of brevity.  But I’ll be happy to take any questions my readers may have.  Who knows, it could lead to interesting future discussions.  For example, the precise definition of “cloning notes”, what qualifies?

November 10, 2012 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

EMR use improves primary care: new study

There seems to be a lot of buzz in the news lately around the question of whether electronic medical record documentation can lead to a higher quality of care.  Last year, a study came out suggesting that this might be true for diabetes care.  More recently, my attention came to an article published in the Journal of the American medical informatics Association in May 2012, Method of electronic health record documentation and quality of primary care.

A group of researchers led by Dr. Jeffrey Linder at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital studied primary care physicians taking care of 7000 patients with coronary artery disease and diabetes over nine months. The study authors assessed 15 quality measures, three of which were found to be performed significantly less by physicians using a typical dictation system for record-keeping as opposed to those keeping records by electronic medical records systems.  Two of the three standards of care measures that dictating physicians were less likely to provide were tobacco use documentation and diabetic eye examinations.
This parallels my own findings as an endocrinologist using electronic medical records. During the period of my early years before I instituted widespread use of templating, I was much less likely to hit all of the quality care measure marks compared with after instituting templates.  It’s actually quite commonsensical that a medical provider can hit all of the marks if they are prompted by the computer.  In a sense, the care goes on autopilot.  No matter how chaotic a given point in the day of a busy doctor might be, it becomes impossible to complete a note without performing all of the prompts unless doing so deliberately.

There has been at least one or two studies that I’m aware of that have doubted or not found the conclusion that electronic medical records improve the quality of care patients receive.  I think that most likely these studies did not find a significant association because they were not properly designed.  When one considers the volume of quality measures pertinent to a typical patient visit with diabetes or coronary artery disease, there are so many measures that unless every physician has the measures memorized and never forgets anything, gets flustered or has to hurry through the visit, there will almost be a guarantee that not all measures will be addressed at a visit.  I’ll take that bet and win every time.

The fact that there are now at least two studies showing a positive relationship between the quality of care given to diabetic patients in the use of electronic medical records documentation is even stronger evidence that this is a real phenomenon.  Personally, I can’t believe that anybody would think that electronic medical records don’t lead to better care, regardless of the degree of such improvement.  That is, unless they’re not using the templating advantage.

October 21, 2012 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

Patient Engagement: Who are the Real Targets?

As I further considered the ideas generated by the breakfast panel I had the opportunity to participate in recently, Doctors and Patients: Bridging the Digital Divide, I was reminded of a stimulating comment made by Nikolai Kirienko, a patient advocate with Crohn’s disease. He stated that we need to use the current technology to reach patients who need it most.

But who are these patients, really?

Are they the well and well-to-do, middle to upper-class population who are internet-savvy, highly educated, and compliant with following the plans suggested by the healthcare provider?

Are they the patient struggling with chronic illnesses, the symptoms of which may tend to wax and wane on a daily basis, making their issues a daily struggle?

Are they the poverty-stricken residents of typically lower class neighborhoods in metropolitan areas, who may have more limited access to digital technology?

From my personal experience in a downtown metropolitan area, namely Washington, DC, I can tell you that most of the patients who are engaged in seeking out new information regarding their health conditions tend to be highly educated, middle to upper-class patients with excellent access to digital technology.

But I have to come back to the initial comment in question, which begs the question of who should we really be targeting?  Who can really take the most advantage to gain from the digital healthcare revolution?

I could take the Pollyanna-esque view that everyone should be able to take advantage of everything equally and we should all just get along and be happy.  However, real-world experience tells me that there may be a different answer this question.  There are also limited resources for healthcare outreach campaigns.  Therefore, it would seem appropriate to do more research into the area to really define who the best targets are for the maximum benefits. It certainly seems like a valuable question to answer and one that’s worth going after.  What do you think?

September 24, 2012 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

Patient engagement in the digital era

In the not-so-old days of medicine, patient engagement used to involve things like looking the patient in the eye when speaking to them, facing the patient, asking them how they felt, and asking them if they had any other questions before ending the visit. These so-called rules of engagement have now been augmented by the computer in between the patient and the provider.

No longer are the former etiquette protocols sufficient for interacting in the digital era. Now, patient engagement includes Internet searches using “Dr. Google” for what in my opinion are typically anxiety-fueled questions that are frequently unnecessary and irrelevant and would not have been asked prior to the arrival of Internet searches.

However, the internet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and so providers have to be able to deal with this new level of interaction. Fortunately, not all patient engagement is so maladaptive.

Patient engagement is a funny thing though. It seems to be confused by doctors, staff and patients. Some people think patient engagement involves E-medicine, or rather electronic visits over secure messaging systems. I laughed the other day when I viewed a YouTube video showing a woman talking about a third party for-profit software vendor company using their technology to allow patients to pay bills online and therefore be more” engaged”. Right. That’s twistier than Presidential campaign rhetoric.

Another speaker put it well when he said that “reality struggles to keep up with the rhetoric” when he was commenting on the difficulty in defining patient engagement, yet everyone wants to use the jargon liberally.

I prefer to think of patient engagement in the digital era as being positive in several respects. I expect the patients to take an active role in their healthcare, in gaining knowledge about their disease, and in gaining knowledge about health prevention and treating ongoing illness issues. In doing so, the patient becomes empowered to take an active role in the decision-making process during the testing and treatment phases of care. This is not to say the patient should get to consult Dr. Google and then dictate what tests are being done on them regardless of what the ordering provider thinks is appropriate. I think the most ethical and appropriate response to such requests are to, first, consider them seriously; second, discuss with the patient which tests are medically indicated and which tests are medically unnecessary; and finally, to stand one’s ground in either writing or not writing for any medically unnecessary tests to be ordered.

I also completely agree with the definition of patient engagement as defined by the Society for Participatory Medicine. It says that patient engagement is a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health, and in which providers encourage and value them as full partners.

In order to get patients more engaged in participating in their healthcare, I think we need to make it fun, make it interesting, and communicate using means where the patient actually is, on multiple levels of “is”. In the case of the digitally connected patient, we should be considering communicating using the Internet, smartphones, and mobile devices such as iPads. We need to be able to make this communication valuable to the patient so that they, in turn, want more of it, and so that the movement grows.

September 17, 2012 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

EMRs’ big gaping hole of secure messaging

Today’s post begins a series inspired by my recent participation in a breakfast panel in Washington, DC, Doctors and Patients Bridging the Digital Divide. There were a lot of useful ideas discussed during this panel, and so I decided to capture and share some with you.

One of the biggest holes in electronic medical records currently seems to be a lack of secure messaging systems built into the software.  Although maybe not universally true, this still represents a huge problem that also represents a great opportunity for gains in technology that will enhance the doctor-patient relationship and move digital healthcare forward into the future.

Currently, my electronic medical record vendor does not supply this feature as part of its software package.  However, as part of the Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirements by the federal government, the use of a certified EMR system that supports this function will be required.  A HIPAA-compliant secure messaging system will be needed as a part of every electronic medical record going forward.

Currently, if I wanted to use secure messaging to communicate with my patients, I would have to purchase a separate third-party vendor’s online software to communicate in a HIPAA-compliant fashion.  This involves an additional service agreement between the third-party and me, as well as monthly fees they can be expensive.  This would grant me the right to not only communicate with patients but also to bill third-party insurance companies for providing such electronic health services.  However, what may people do not appreciate is the small reimbursement allowance for such services, which is quite minimal.  Thus, regardless of the demand by patients, it’s currently more financially lucrative simply to see another patient in the office for a follow-up visit rather than answer a message electronically.  If an electronic medical record vendor builds secure patient messaging into their platform, when there is already a contractual arrangement between the doctor and EMR vendor, then a third-party cost would potentially become unnecessary.  The prospect of using a built-in, HIPAA-compliant, secure messaging system suddenly becomes much more attractive and potentially fiscally responsible.

Unfortunately, many EMR systems are in still developing stages at which they do not yet have built-in secure messaging features in their PHR or personal health record modules.

But what a wonderful and potentially powerful area for future development in order to further promote patients to become more engaged in playing a more active role in their own health care.  The ability of a patient to reach their doctor through the Internet is certainly an attractive feature if done right and seems potentially better than a patient spending five minutes on hold listening to elevator music only to finally speak to a front desk staff member who will only be able to forward a message, which may or may not be forwarded accurately.

September 12, 2012 I Written By

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at