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Epic EMR Adoption, Utilization, and Cost

April 23, 2009
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You need to dedicate the time and resources to constantly iterate, refine, and improve the utilization of an EMR over time

The point of this blog is: Purchasing and installing an EMR and hoping that you’ll realize a positive return-on-investment is not enough. You need to dedicate the time and resources to constantly iterate, refine and improve the utilization of that EMR over time, far beyond its installation and go-live. It’s a race without a finish line so you might as well train, budget and plan for that accordingly-- up front.

At Northwestern, we take great pride in being one of the first fully-institutionalized adopters of an EHR in healthcare. We’ve had an ambulatory EMR (Epic) for 12 years and an acute care EMR (Cerner) for 10. For the past 18-24 months, we’ve been studying not just the adoption of the EMR, but also studying the utilization of the EMR. Drawing upon an analogy to illustrate the point, if a carpenter buys a pneumatic nail gun, I call that “adoption” of a new tool. But if that carpenter is still using the nail gun to manually pound nails as if it were a hammer, has he achieved “utilization” of the tool? If you believe there is added value to an EMR over a paper chart—or even a word processor-- where does that added value reside and are we using it for those purposes? I’ve been slowly polling and collecting data in an attempt to understand EMR “utilization.” I doubt my data collection process would pass Gallup’s scrutiny, but I still believe that it paints an informative picture. Here’s what I have so far…

Qualitative Assessment of Epic EMR Utilization: “Do you personally use the Electronic Medical Record for the following purposes?”

  1. Remote, Internet-based access to the EMR for the benefit of physician convenience and faster patient treatment: 87%
  2. Data-driven reports and analytics which benefit patient care, such as disease management: 34%
  3. Data-driven clinical research: 73%
  4. Data-driven compliance, regulatory, or accreditation reporting: 19%
  5. Referral communications through a clinical In-Basket or automatic letter generation: 94%

If you are a physician or other clinician who uses an EMR and want to add your 2 cents, go ahead and fill out this survey: EMR Utilization.

Quantitative Assessment of Epic EMR Utilization

Based on data from the EMR itself, we run queries in an attempt to objectively measure how the EMR is being utilized in a few key areas of “added value” over a paper chart. To me, those key areas of added value of an EMR reside in the computable data that’s collected in medication orders and management; allergies management and awareness; problem list management and awareness; and family history of disease Below are the questions we asked in the queries of our data. The reporting period for the queries is December 2008 through April 23, 2009.

  1. Medications: What percentage of encounters included a medication order during the reporting period?: 68%
    1. Clearly, not all patient encounters will include a medication order, so we would expect this number to be less than 100%. What we are really trying to find here is the denominator of all Rx orders to better understand utilization. That’s a tougher number to find-- we’re looking at prescription pad utilization as an indicator.
  2. Allergies: What percentage of encounters included a review of patient allergies during the reporting period?: 68%
    1. Ideally, this should be 100%; there is a checkbox in the Epic EMR to indicate “Allergies Reviewed”, but note that the metric seems to be tightly correlated to medication orders, which is the most important issue, i.e., Are physicians reviewing allergies when they prescribe medications? It would seem so.
  3. Problem Lists: What percentage of patients have an entry in their EMR Problem List during the reporting period?: 64%
    1. Again, not all patients will have an entry in their problem list, but common sense tells me that it should be higher than 64%. Therefore, this metric hints that we are underutilizing our Problem List.
  4. Family History: What percentages of patients have an entry in the Family History section of their EMR during the reporting period?: 59%
    1. It’s possible that a patient has no knowledge of family history or nothing worth noting, but common sense tells me that this number should be higher than 59%. This metric suggests that we are underutilizing the Family History section of the EMR.

$$-- Total Cost of Ownership

Finally, to gain some idea of the cost-to-benefit ratio, we measured the total cost of ownership for Epic-- hardware, software, network connectivity, and labor-- Total Cost. The analysis for this TCO took about 3-4 months and the involvement of over 20 people. It was a very thorough analysis. The TCO for the Epic EMR on our campus, including patient registration and scheduling, is $856 per physician per month, or $10,272 per physician year. We have 640 physicians in our physician group, but over 3,000 Epic users on the campus including staff in the Hospital, private physicians, and researchers who benefit from Epic, but do not expressly support it, financially.

In Conclusion

We are working hard to increase the valuable utilization of Epic at Northwestern, while reducing our costs. In addition to our day-to-day Epic support staff, I have a dedicated team of four “Epic Optimization” specialists who are tasked with cycling through each of our 30 Departments to achieve “Epic Optimization.” I can’t imagine that team ever going away. To lower our central support costs while still improving our utilization metrics, we have an active “Epic SuperUser” program consisting of physicians and nurses in the Departments who receive a higher-level of training and system privileges than a typical user; it’s an official, recognized part of their job description.

Remember: An EMR project never finishes. Train, fund, and plan accordingly… don’t short-change the investment!

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