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The Meaning of Meaningful Use of EMR

If you talk to anyone who is involved in the electronic medical records (EMR) industry, one of the biggest points of discussion is what is known as “Meaningful Use of EMR.” which way.jpgWhat started as a well-intentioned (by some) effort to establish standards for EMR software systems has morphed into political jockeying by corporations, consumer watchdogs, and others.

The US Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlined these criteria for Meaningful Use of EMR:
1)    Improve quality, safety, efficiency, and reduce health disparities
2)    Engage patients and families
3)    Improve care coordination
4)    Improve population and public health
5)    Ensure adequate privacy and security protections for personal health information

And although each of these has defined goals followed by specific objectives and measures for the years 2011, 2013, and 2015, these still sound a bit ambiguous. Many industry experts, however, expect these to be more fine-tuned as the dates approach, but medical practices will have to stay informed to keep ahead of the curve.

Financial Incentives

As part of the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), financial incentives will be given to those physicians whose practices demonstrate “meaningful use” beginning January, 2011.

The incentive payment, according to CMS, is equal to 75% of Medicare-allowable charges for covered services in a given year, and maxes out as follows:

  • Year 1 – $15,000
  • Year 2 – $12,000
  • Year 3 – $8,000
  • Year 4 – $4,000
  • Year 5 – $2,000

For those practices who are early adopters of the technology and hit the threshold for meaningful use in 2011 or 2012, the first year payment would be $18,000. Note that this only applies to Medicare; there are additional incentives for healthcare providers who have a certain threshold of Medicaid patients and/or who practice in a rural area. The threshold for office-based pediatricians is lower, and so they would be more likely to qualify for those additional funds.


[table courtesy of]

Even considering the fact that EMR implementation may cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 per provider, these incentives would certainly make that investment more palatable.

Those practices that procrastinate, however, will be penalized with cuts in Medicare and Medicaid payments:

  • 2015 – 1%
  • 2016 – 2%
  • 2017 – 3%
  • 2020 – 5% (maximum reduction)

So, how do you know if you qualify? According to the health IT blog NetDoc, to be a “meaningful EHR user”, a physician must satisfy three criteria:

  1. Must use “certified EHR [EMR] technology”
  2. Must demonstrate that the certified EHR technology is connected in such a way that it provides for the electronic exchange of health  information to improve the quality of health care, such as promoting the coordination of care (using HL7 or XML standards)
  3. Must submit information on clinical quality measures specified by HHS (such as PQRI)

Some physicians have told me that because there isn’t a final definition of what is considered “certified EHR technology” they are just going to wait. Big mistake. Most health care IT experts working on and advising on this issue feel fairly strongly that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) will set CCHIT (Certification Commission for Health Information Technology) criteria as the standard for EMR certification.

CCHIT is a non-profit organization funded by various corporations and groups such as the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians, and was recognized by the US Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a certifying body in 2006.

Some critics, however, charge that CCHIT is a shill for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), the healthcare industry’s membership organization focused on healthcare IT. Although made up of both corporate and individual members, these critics feel that their goal is to corner the market for certain major EMR players. Nevertheless, unless or until there is an alternative, most EMR vendors are using CCHIT certification as the benchmark.

In addition to the EMR certification criteria, the ONCHIT is expected to adopt an initial set of standards and implementation specifications by the end of the year 2009.


So, is too late to implement EMR in your practice and still qualify for the financial incentives? Well, that depends on the size of your practice, type of specialty, and how motivated your doctors and staff are to go paperless. Just don’t expect to run down to Office Depot, buy an EMR program and launch it the next day (although there is talk about WalMart getting into the EMR business, but we’ll leave that story for another day…)

According to MBA HealthGroup, these are some reasonable time frames to expect for EMR Implementation:

  • Stage 1 – up to 6 months – researching vendors, getting buy-in, setting up an EMR committee, checking out demos, and making a final decision on the EMR system
  • Stage 2 – up to 5 months –  time it will take to actually ‘go live’. In the meantime, adapting workflow to EMR system you chose, ordering hardware, and standardizing processes
  • Stage 3 – between 6 and 12 months – amount of time it will likely take to achieve “meaningful use”, which includes ePrescribing, documenting electronically, and ability to report certain items (which are still being determined)

MBA HealthBlog

[timeline courtesy of MBA HealthBlog]

Smaller groups and solo doctors may be able to purchase a more basic, “out-of-the-box” EMR system and more quickly adapt their workflow to the system, rather than vice versa in the case of larger medical practices. But, the one thing you can count on with EMR implementation is that you can’t count on anything – that is why some sort of timeline is important [see EMR Implementation Rollout].

What this boils down to is that those practices that have already started implementing EMR will have a good shot at getting those higher financial incentives. On the other hand, physicians who have been wishing that the whole idea of EMR was just a fleeting fad may not only miss out on these incentives but may also face cuts in their reimbursement.

Questions? Comments? Post them below

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