Boosting employment nationwide was a major goal of the stimulus law, and there is little doubt, according to the government and industry leaders, that tens of thousands of new jobs will be needed if the federal effort to push provider adoption of EHRs is to be successful.
Under the stimulus law, both physicians and hospitals seeking subsidy payments for their IT purchases must use certified EHRs in a meaningful manner. Last December, the ONC and CMS issued rules for certification and meaningful use. In response to thousands of subsequent public comments, both rules are likely to be modified sometime this spring.
The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates there are 308,900 office-based physicians who are not federal employees, who are not working for a hospital's ambulatory-care program, and who are not radiologists, anesthesiologists or pathologists.
Almost half of these doctors are either in solo practice or work in partnership with just one other physician. According to the latest NCHS data available—the 2009 estimates from its National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey—only 21% of these office-based physicians have a “basic” EHR.
By NCHS definition, a basic system has rudimentary capabilities, including the ability to create patient problem lists and clinical notes and do electronic prescribing. Although it's not part of the definition, a basic system most likely lacks sufficient functionality to be certified under ONC rules and thus be considered to be an EHR system worthy of reimbursement under the multibillion-dollar stimulus technology subsidy program that is dominating the health IT landscape.
Just 6% of all office-based physicians use what the NCHS defines as a “fully functional” EHR. Such a system might have enough bells and whistles—such as automatic warnings of drug interactions and out-of-range test levels—that a physician using one might reasonably expect to qualify for federal EHR subsidy payments under the stimulus law, based on current drafts of ONC and CMS rules.
But even these advanced EHR systems are likely to require vendor upgrades to meet proposed ONC certification criteria, while many clinicians will still be expected to change their workflows and reporting requirements to fully qualify for EHR subsidy payments under proposed CMS meaningful-use standards.
On average, hospitals are a bit higher up the IT adoption curve than physician offices, but most hospitals are still a long way from where they'll need to be to achieve meaningful use under the proposed CMS criteria.
Computerized physician order entry is an advanced EHR function in hospitals. According to the CMS proposed rule, to qualify for federal EHR subsidy payments under the Medicare portion of the stimulus law, hospitals must run 10% of their orders through a CPOE system for a 90-day period sometime during the first year of the program, which starts this fall.
Jason Hess, general manager of clinical research at KLAS Enterprises, Orem, Utah, a health IT market research firm, said its latest survey data, validated between October 2009 and February 2010, show only about 16% of hospitals have CPOE systems up and running.
“And if you look at those that are doing 50% of their orders or more through CPOE, it's 11.3%,” Hess said.
Given the low levels of adoption and use, Hess asked whether it is even “realistic” for the CMS to require that all hospitals have CPOE installed in the first year and “get 10% of orders through CPOE.”
Talk of a looming labor shortage problem is on a lot of IT buyers' lips, Hess said. Some of the vendors are trying to address the problem by offering remote hosting services for their products, he said, but it remains to be seen whether the software-as-a-service delivery model will catch on fast enough and be used widely enough to make a dent in the workforce shortfall.
Small, rural and community hospitals will feel the stress most severely.
“It's kind of the Wild West for these folks who say we've got to do all the things the big hospitals do,” Hess said.