Friday, December 30, 2011

Deep Thoughts from the Meaningful Use Mountain Top

In some ways I am grateful to see 2011 end.  Several extracurricular projects have drained the life out of me, including our Meaningful Use (MU) project.  As near as I can tell we survived.  Our 90 days of compliance for phase 1 / year 1 are completed.  Last night I completed my attestation on line uneventfully.  We will get attestation completed for the rest of our physicians within a couple of weeks.  Then we will join the few (1%) of “eligible providers” that have complied with MU.  One would think that folks would be breaking down the doors of these “one-percenters” to learn the secrets of their success.  Yet a brief Internet search reveals no doctor testimonials on MU success beyond the second hand accounts offered by EMR vendors and consultants.  These are of little value.  So I am writing my testimony.

Over the past several months I have repeatedly criticized MU, with good reason.  But perhaps now that I have climbed the MU Mountain and my check will soon (hopefully) be on its way, I should soften my view a bit.  Sort of like final exam week…exams looked awful before you took them, but when you got done and you were somehow still alive, well, maybe it wasn’t so bad.

Well, sorry, it’s still that bad.  It took about 150 man-hours of work to complete this project.  And our EMR use, our quality of patient care and our practice efficiency is for the most part no better.  In some ways it is worse.  As a result of MU:
1.     We now take blood pressures on children.  This is almost never medically relevant in an ENT practice.  We can’t exempt ourselves from this requirement because of our adult patients, in whom blood pressure is often relevant.
2.     We waste volumes of paper printing clinical visit summaries that no one reads.  While the concept of a visit summary is OK, the document itself must include so much extra data it is useless.  Our web portal, which we are in the process of replacing, does not support this requirement so we have to use paper visit summaries for now.
3.     Patient waiting time is increased while we process data on pneumovax status, smoking status and body mass index on every patient.  In our practice these data are medically relevant for many patients, but not everyone.  Doing it for everybody is a waste.

To be fair, a couple of good things did happen:
1.     Use of EMR-based prescriptions and true e-prescribing (e-Rx) improved with those physicians that were still hanging on to paper scripts and/or were not using e-Rx.
2.     We were not maintaining true ICD-coded problem lists in the EMR before MU.  We had problem lists and diagnoses of course, and we were using ICD codes for billing.  But we had never combined the two processes before.

The entire process is complicated, confusing, and intimidating.  Not only are the guidelines themselves a mess, but also there is a surprising amount of inaccurate and misleading information out there.  Even the CMS publication Attestation User Guide is missing a page compared to the actual attestation web site.  After reading the User Guide I lost an entire night’s sleep thinking that the “children with pharyngitis” quality measure had been deleted because it is missing from that document.  I have 17 years of medical practice experience and 37 years of IT experience.  If I can’t figure this out there is something wrong.

The view from the top of the MU Mountain looking down is no better than the view from the bottom looking up.  Meaningful Use remains an expensive distraction that forces the true benefits of EMR to be overlooked in favor of regulatory compliance.  MU also creates an unhealthy alliance between government and the health IT community.  The government wants to own health IT just like it wants to own the rest of health care.  Don’t fall for it.