Guest Column | March 13, 2019

EHR Systems Have 3 Major Hurdles To Overcome Before They Can Truly Improve Patient Care

By Charlie Whitfield, Whitty IT Solutions

Pharmacy Chains Expanding Use Of EHRs

The vast majority of healthcare facilities have now adopted some form of electronic health records (EHRs), but the transition has been a challenge for many providers. A recent survey by Stanford Medicine has revealed what many doctors already know: that a majority of them are unhappy with their current EHR systems. In fact, more than half of respondents said their current EHR systems need a “complete overhaul.”

EHRs have the potential to revolutionize patient care but maintaining and updating them remains a time-consuming chore. To ensure that patients and providers can begin to derive genuine benefit from EHR systems, the healthcare IT industry has several unique challenges to address.

Interfaces must be easier to use, so doctors can spend less time in front of computers and more time with their patients. They also need to be interoperable, which is a considerable challenge as there are currently hundreds of EHR systems in use. Most importantly, sophisticated data protection measures must be put in place to ensure that sensitive medical information remains private and secure.

Addressing The Pain Points

If you’ve visited your regular physician lately and noticed that you spent more time watching her type than speaking with her face to face, you’re far from alone. Doctors responding to the Stanford Medicine survey reported spending about 62 percent of their time inputting data into EHR systems, taking away valuable time that could be spent evaluating patients and discussing their symptoms and health concerns.

Some healthcare systems are attempting to reverse this trend by facing the issue head on. Penn Medicine, for example, is working to modernize EHRs and make them more seamless and user-friendly. The goal, company officials say, is to “nudge the EHR into a new era where it’s not just a documentation system but a crucial tool for care delivery.” There are also multi-vendor partnerships in the works to address the most common pain points associated with EHR systems.

There are several ways that EHR vendors can test and improve their system interfaces. One method is to evaluate how many clicks it takes to complete tasks that doctors perform most frequently, such as writing progress histories and ordering medications. Vendors should also consider implementing basic AI features capable of recognizing patterns in users’ behavior and placing common choices near the top, instead of forcing users to scroll through long lists of options to get to what they need.

Working Together

To say the EHR market is overcrowded would be an understatement. There are currently more than 1,110 EHR products available, according to EHR Intelligence. This is beginning to change, however, as healthcare companies increasingly consolidate their EHR systems through mergers and acquisitions. For example, in 2018 Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care merged to form Advocate Aurora Health, and all of its associated facilities will use the popular Epic EHR system.

Although EHR platforms are beginning to merge, less than half of them allow providers to share records with other facilities, according to the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONC). This puts the onus on patients to relay their entire medical histories every time they switch doctors or visit a new specialist.

Vendors are also adopting new EHR industry standards such as Fast Health Interoperability Resources (FHIR). According to the ONC, nearly a third of EHR vendors are now using the FHIR standard. As existing systems begin to standardize, tech giants like Apple and Microsoft are developing new platforms that prioritize interoperability and information security.

Security And Privacy

Healthcare IT companies must walk a fine line between making information readily available to all of a patient’s providers, and, at the same time, protecting valuable data against cyberattacks. This problem was brought into focus recently when two employees for the Minnesota Department of Human Services fell for phishing attacks, potentially breaching more than 21,000 patient records. Patient information hacks can lead to identity theft, insurance fraud, and other major problems.

Doctors, especially those working in emergency and trauma departments, often need nearly instantaneous access to medical records. As Chad Wilson, director of information security at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C, explained in an interview, timely access to information in a healthcare setting is measured in seconds, making the balance between usability and security a significant challenge. Wilson advises healthcare IT workers to stay on top of new medical technologies such as remote health-monitoring systems and imaging software and to “always be vigilant” about how the resulting medical data is saved and secured.

Though EHR systems have been gaining momentum for at least ten years, the technology still has room for improvement. Vendors can address many of the pain points physicians face by incorporating user experience testing early in the design process and adding customization options as providers’ needs change and information grows more complex. As the EHR market becomes less fragmented, vendors that remain will need to continue to adopt interoperability standards to make patient records more accurate, comprehensive, and easily transferable. And, to address the ever-present threat of data theft, developers will need to implement advanced cybersecurity measures from the very beginning and revisit these strategies as new medical technologies enter the market.

Author The Author

Charlie Whitfield is the founder and CEO of Whitty IT Solutions, an Atlanta-based information technology and professional services firm that specializes in healthcare IT advisory services for the government sector. Charlie is a proud veteran and holds an MBA from University of Phoenix.