Finding Meaning in “Meaningful Use” for Electronic Health Records

Doctors and their staff members can be set in their ways, because they know from experience that those ways allow them the time needed to focus on patient care. And for anyone on the front lines in healthcare, that’s what matters.

IT, healthcare, and my attitudes have come a long way in the intervening years. And as we all hear more about the potential of electronic health records (EHRs), I’m curious about what they mean for patient care.

The 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act provides more than $20 million in incentives to medical practices, hospitals, and healthcare organizations that can show they are making “meaningful use” of EHRs. The good news? Most of the nation’s largest hospitals have already deployed EHR systems.

Unfortunately, as of 2010 less than 20 percent of the country’s 700,000 practicing physicians were using them. Squandering incentives is one thing. But come 2015, penalties for non-compliance will take effect.

Doctors and hospitals that treat Medicare patients will begin to see a reduction in reimbursements if they aren’t meeting meaningful use requirements. Private insurers are expected to follow suit. So what is “meaningful use”? And does it provide a path for doctors to deliver better care to their patients?

At its most basic, “meaningful use” is the set of standards that governs the use of electronic health records, as defined by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Incentive Programs.

According to healthit.gov, the broad benefits of EHR meaningful use include complete and accurate information, better access to that information, and patient empowerment. The idea is that with the right information at the right time, healthcare providers can better understand a patient’s health history and collaborate with other healthcare professionals to achieve the best possible care results. And patients can take a more active role in their own healthcare.

The road map to meaningful use has three stages, all ultimately concerned with patient care. The criteria for stage one, data capture and sharing, focuses on standardized electronic information capture to track clinical conditions, and sharing that information for coordinated care and public health measures, along with patient interactions. Stage two, advanced clinical processes, calls for more robust health information exchange (HIE), increased e-prescribing and lab results requirements, and more patient-controlled data.

Finally, stage three defines the ultimate goal – at least as most healthcare professionals would see it: improved outcomes. Higher quality, safer, more efficient care; patient-centered health information exchange; more patient self-management tools; decision support for national high-priority conditions; and a healthier population.

As a result of legislation, EHRs are going to be the norm in the next couple of years. And yes, the transition from manual records and processes can be costly, both in terms of financial investment and ramp-up time for staff. But I’d argue that it’s worth approaching meaningful use not as a burden, but as a real opportunity to improve patient health and quality of life.

To learn more about the move to EHRs – and to find out how four major healthcare organizations are helping the independent practices with which they work make the transition – check out the InformationWeek report “Electronic Health Records: Time to Get Onboard.”