Figure 1: % of office-based physicians with EHR - 2010
Figure 2: % of office-based physicians with EHR - 2011
On Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of its yearly survey on Electronic Health Records (EHR) adoption for office-based physicians. No surprises. Generally speaking, the majority of physicians in ambulatory practice are now using an EHR, and over half of surveyed doctors say that they intend to seek Meaningful Use incentives. The report is also presenting results broken down by state, so you can learn what folks are doing in your immediate vicinity. The more instructive exercise is to compare last year’s survey results [Figure 1] to this year’s estimated EHR adoption numbers [Figure 2].
The most immediate observation is that 6.2% of physicians have adopted an EHR in 2011, thus returning to EHR growth rates preceding the 2009 -2010 slowdown, which was largely due to the confusion created by Meaningful Use regulations. The next observation is that the percentage of docs that have at least a basic EHR has gone up by 8.9% in 2011. A basic EHR is one that has “patient history and demographics, patient problem list, physician clinical notes, comprehensive list of patient’s medications and allergies, computerized orders for prescriptions, and ability to view laboratory and imaging results electronically”. Although the survey instrument in 2011 did ask about more advanced functionality, and is practically identical to the 2010 instrument, the CDC did not publish a separate number for those with fully functional systems in 2011. Although I cannot be certain, I would assume that most of the growth in 2011 was fueled by certified EHRs, which by definition should be fully functional. So if I had to guess, and I hope CDC will release the numbers so I don’t have to, I would estimate that in 2011 we have at least 20% of physicians using fully functional systems, which is roughly double what we had in 2010.
Another interesting trend that has been holding since around 2007 is that about a quarter of office-based doctors have some type of bare bones software in their office and they are not upgrading to even a basic EHR. Considering that over half of those surveyed intend to apply for Meaningful Use incentives, this trend is bound to change in 2012. Some of these folks may have purchased a fully featured EHR, but chose to either not turn features on or chose not to keep up with upgrades to newer versions. For ambulatory EHR vendors these numbers translate into a market opportunity ranging from 50% of the market to a full 80% of ambulatory physicians.
It would be very beneficial if CDC released the complete data set from this survey (anonymous, of course), so we could gain a better understanding of EHR adoption patterns by practice type, size and location. Although it is widely acknowledged that larger practices and employed physicians are further along the curve, the rich details provided by the survey instrument should help both vendors and various organizations engaged in efforts to spur technology adoption, better target their work, and it could also illuminate any disparities which may affect quality of care for vulnerable populations and physicians who serve them.
In summary, the new CDC survey is showing a stable growth in technology use by office-based physicians, modestly improved by government initiatives over the last two years, and well positioned to further improve in 2012 and beyond.
Doctors in America are harboring an embarrassing secret: Many of them are going broke.
This quiet reality, which is spreading nationwide, is claiming a wide range of casualties, including family physicians, cardiologists and oncologists.
Industry watchers say the trend is worrisome. Half of all doctors in the nation operate a private practice. So if a cash crunch forces the death of an independent practice, it robs a community of a vital health care resource.
"A lot of independent practices are starting to see serious financial issues," said Marc Lion, CEO of Lion & Company CPAs, LLC, which advises independent doctor practices about their finances.
Doctors list shrinking insurance reimbursements, changing regulations, rising business and drug costs among the factors preventing them from keeping their practices afloat. But some experts counter that doctors' lack of business acumen is also to blame.
Dr. William Pentz, 47, a cardiologist with a Philadelphia private practice, and his partners had to tap into their personal assets to make payroll for employees last year. "And we still barely made payroll last paycheck," he said. "Many of us are also skimping on our own pay."
Pentz said recent steep 35% to 40% cuts in Medicare reimbursements for key cardiovascular services, such as stress tests and echocardiograms, have taken a substantial toll on revenue. "Our total revenue was down about 9% last year compared to 2010," he said.
"These cuts have destabilized private cardiology practices," he said. "A third of our patients are on Medicare. So these Medicare cuts are by far the biggest factor. Private insurers follow Medicare rates. So those reimbursements are going down as well."
Pentz is thinking about an out. "If this continues, I might seriously consider leaving medicine," he said. "I can't keep working this way."
Also on his mind, the impending 27.4% Medicare pay cut for doctors. "If that goes through, it will put us under," he said.
Federal law requires that Medicare reimbursement rates be adjusted annually based on a formula tied to the health of the economy. That law says rates should be cut every year to keep Medicare financially sound.
Although Congress has blocked those cuts from happening 13 times over the past decade, most recently on Dec. 23 with a two-month temporary "patch," this dilemma continues to haunt doctors every year.
Beau Donegan, senior executive with a hospital cancer center in Newport Beach, Calif., is well aware of physicians' financial woes.
"Many are too proud to admit that they are on the verge of bankruptcy," she said. "These physicians see no way out of the downward spiral of reimbursement, escalating costs of treating patients and insurance companies deciding when and how much they will pay them."
Donegan knows an oncologist "with a stellar reputation in the community" who hasn't taken a salary from his private practice in over a year. He owes drug companies $1.6 million, which he wasn't reimbursed for.
Dr. Neil Barth is that oncologist. He has been in the top 10% of oncologists in his region, according to U.S. News Top Doctors' ranking. Still, he is contemplating personal bankruptcy.
That move could shutter his 31-year-old clinical practice and force 6,000 cancer patients to look for a new doctor.
Changes in drug reimbursements have hurt him badly. Until the mid-2000's, drugs sales were big profit generators for oncologists.
In oncology, doctors were allowed to profit from drug sales. So doctors would buy expensive cancer drugs at bulk prices from drug makers and then sell them at much higher prices to their patients.
"I grew up in that system. I was spending $1.5 million a month on buying treatment drugs," he said. In 2005, Medicare revised the reimbursement guidelines for cancer drugs, which effectively made reimbursements for many expensive cancer drugs fall to less than the actual cost of the drugs.