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Can You Afford to Let Them Fail?

October 27, 2009
by Daphne Lawrence
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Though hospitals may not have to subsidize EMRs for independent, community practices, letting them fail and flail is not a sound strategy

Todd Rothenhaus

Todd Rothenhaus

The definition of meaningful use is still evolving, but it's clear some level of information exchange between hospitals and physician practices will be required to qualify for HITECH incentive payments. And while a hospital may be well positioned on meaningful use with its own EMR, its affiliated independent physician practices may not be. Can hospitals afford to leave EMR implementation up to the practices and risk losing stimulus money due to a lack of information exchange?

Though a number of hospitals have been offering EMR funding and support to physicians since the relaxation of the Stark laws, HITECH has sent independent practices rushing for help, and CIOs are paying attention. “There's a feeding frenzy with the HITECH stimulus,” says Todd Rothenhaus, M.D., senior vice president and CIO of Boston-based Caritas Christi Health Care, a seven-hospital system. “Two-thirds of our physicians are not employed, but those physicians are valuable to us, and we want to service that group, too.”

Rothenhaus says CIOs can't afford to ignore this group of doctors - not only for quality of care issues, but for the hospital's business model. “For health organizations, the ability to help with electronic health records is becoming a competitive edge,” he says. “The ones that look away from this miss an opportunity to align with a physician who might go to another hospital system because they are supporting an EHR.”

It's an interesting environment, says John Whitman, principal at ECG Management Consultants (Arlington, Va.). He says that although hospitals are feeling the pressure to connect this group, not all of them are able to do so - at least for now. “We do see organizations that aren't doing anything with those docs and are just focusing on an employed group strategy,” he says. “They realize that something needs to be done with the community, but it may or may not be a priority depending on their competitive environment.”

Whitman, whose firm works with many smaller hospitals, believes the best approach to community doctors is to devise a physician IT strategy that aligns with their overall IT strategy - and not to be distracted from a coherent plan by HITECH.

Many CIOs are already on that track. Richard Shirey, CIO of the 1,500-bed Baptist Health System (Birmingham, Ala.), says he has “a vision of an integrated health record, and the only way we can accomplish that is if our (community) physicians are aligned as well as our employed physicians. It's the only way we'll be able to gather quality measures and help improve patient care, and I don't think the dollar number is all that important.”

At Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del., a key component of the overall IT strategy is around primary care. “We were doing this before HITECH,” says Terri Steinberg, M.D., CMIO of the two-hospital system. “It's very important for Christiana Care to maintain a viable primary care community - we feel a sense of responsibility.” Steinberg says the organization has been reaching out to primary care docs to learn how the hospital can help them stay in business and thrive. “One of the things we heard is that they want help picking a system.”

Choosing an EMR, however, can be overwhelming, according to Shirey. “Physicians are conservative businessmen who like sure things,” he says. “They know that technology can help them, but it hasn't been an easy road. Many of them are scared.”

Lindsey Jarrell, senior vice president and CIO of BayCare Health System in Tampa, Fla., has also seen his independent practice physicians' interest in EHRs rise. “I think HITECH caught a lot of people flatfooted,” he says. “Most of the community physicians we meet with still do not know how meaningful use is being defined. They don't understand the timeframe, and we're spending a lot of time on those conversations.”

Jarrell says the doctors are asking BayCare for help in selecting a system. He says they typically approach the vice president of medical affairs, or at times the CMO or the CMIO, who then routes them to Jarrell. “We immediately get it down to four to eight options for them, depending on which way they want to go,” he says.

BayCare, a nine-hospital system, is typical of many large systems in that it had an existing plan to connect its community doctors. Jarrell says larger IDNs may already have these strategies in place as they tend to have more resources. However, though larger hospital systems may already be out of the gate with their community docs, smaller community hospitals are just joining the race.

Though many financially-strapped hospitals don't have money to subsidize physician practices through Stark, they can still participate. “A hospital may not have the funds, but coming up with a strategy and sharing it with the community docs gives the physicians a direction to work towards,” he says. “It's putting that strategy out there and getting physician participation.”

And while the large IDNs may have already had a strategy, timelines are speeding up. Rothenhaus says he is presently up to two practices per week. In the past year-and-a-half, he's quadrupled the size of his implementation team. Those numbers have stepped up, he says, because of Caritas' decision to consider non-employed physicians equal to employed physicians in terms of information sharing.

For many, that support begins with answering questions from independent physicians. At Christiana Care, Steinberg has been holding workshops with community physicians, and says the one thing they request is guidance. “It's not actually the money that scares them; it's picking the wrong system and being marooned,” she says. “They want somebody like me to give the seal of approval.”


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