WASHINGTON — If you've been thinking about implementing an electronic health record system but are daunted by the cost and complexity, you may have an untapped ally: your local hospital.
Many hospitals across the country have large and often untapped financial endowments for expansion of electronic health records (EHRs), to say nothing of strong technical support and considerable volume purchasing clout. As they compete for the allegiance of community-based physicians, some hospitals are finding that they can generate considerable goodwill by extending a helping hand to primary care doctors who want to digitize their practices.
“Doctors should contact the business development and community outreach offices at their local hospitals, and ask what they can do to help facilitate EHR adoption, advised Dr. Todd Rothenhaus, chief medical information officer for Caritas Christi Healthcare Systems, a six-hospital network in eastern Massachusetts.
Speaking at the fifth annual World Health Care Congress, Dr. Rothenhaus said community physicians are often pleasantly surprised to find out how much assistance they can obtain from area hospitals.
Nearly all of the nation's hospitals now have some form of EHR system in place. But broader adoption in solo and small group practices has been notoriously slow, a fact that vexes health care policy makers, hospital system administrators, and insurers who believe firmly that EHRs are the key to improving health care delivery.
To help remove some of the roadblocks to broader adoption, Congress modified the Stark antikickback regulations, creating “safe harbors” that enable hospitals to pay up to 85% of the EHR software costs for physicians practicing in their catchment areas.
“That's pretty good. And further, as hospitals we can also get volume discounts on hardware, so there's an extra 10%–15% savings,” said Dr. Rothenhaus.
With an actual example from the Caritas Christi system, he explained that a two-physician, one-nurse practice going from paper records to full EHR on its own would spend roughly $28,000 for hardware, $25,000 for software, $1,500 for training, $4,500 per year for software maintenance, and $2,400 for a software support contract. The total would be over $61,000 in the first year.
With the help of a local Caritas Christi hospital, the hardware cost drops to $25,000, the software costs the practice only $3,375, the training goes down to $1,200, the software maintenance is only $810, and the support package goes down to $2,160, for a final cost of just over $42,545.
While that's hardly chump change, it does put full EHR implementation within reach of more small practices. Dr. Rothenhaus said the savings can be even greater for practices that want to purchase more costly software systems to read and store ultrasounds, echocardiograms, and other data-intensive diagnostic images.
There are nonfiscal advantages to working with a local hospital, Dr. Rothenhaus said. For one, you gain access to hospital-affiliated technicians and analysts who are usually geographically close to the practice, as opposed to anonymous tech support that might be in another state or even another country. Hospital-based IT analysts tend to be well versed in a wide range of applications, system designs, and software packages, so they can be of great help in choosing and configuring the right system for a given practice, he said.
In addition, hospitals usually have strong relationships with equipment and software vendors; not only do they get better prices on support packages, they also get faster and more attentive help when something goes wrong.
Dr. Rothenhaus said Caritas Christi has received roughly $6 million in grants from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Systems, and other organizations interested in pushing EHR out into the trenches of community-based health care. This money is specifically earmarked for offsetting the hardware and software costs for doctors. “I cannot imagine we are the only ones doing this,” he joked, noting that in many parts of the country, smaller hospital systems are competing fiercely for patient referral streams from physicians in their communities.
The Stark laws expressedly prohibit any sort of direct financial inducements for referrals, hence there is no obligation for a physician who accepts EHR help to refer patients to that hospital. But hospital administrators recognize that they're much more likely to win the favor of community-based doctors if they try to help doctors deal with the challenges of running a solo or small group practice.
The hospitals themselves benefit from a well-wired network of doctors in their communities. For one, it makes it far easier to ensure that all patients' records make it back to the primary care physician. This, hospital administrators believe, will improve care, reduce medical errors, and save money by reducing duplicative tests.