In 2000, I was CFO of a health software startup in Austin, Texas. Our product: an innovative electronic medical record oriented to a doctor’s actual workflow. It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea today. But one of the biggest hurdles (besides classic startup execution issues and the bursting of the tech boom) was how to get doctors to adopt it.
Even if it integrated perfectly into a doctor’s routine, there was the small issue of paying for thousands of dollars of hardware and software and, we hoped, a little bit of profit for us and our investors. Even if we could get insurers and medical suppliers to defray some costs, we would still need doctors to reach into their own pockets.
After a bit of research, it was obvious that the best way to drive adoption would be to design the EMR so that it boosted doctor earnings. There are, of course, good and bad ways to do that. The good ways help doctors avoid undercoding (i.e., mistakenly billing too little) or remind them to do appropriate, health-improving, billable activities (e.g., “Mrs. Jones has diabetes, so consider checking her eyes and toes.”) The bad ways … well, you don’t need to be Neil Barofsky to realize that there are myriad ways that doctors could game the system. Our goal was to stay on the right side of that line.
But as a New York Times article by Reed Abelson, Julie Creswell, and Griffin Palmer makes clear, that clearly isn’t true for everyone:
[T]he move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.
Hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier, at least in part by changing the billing codes they assign to patients in emergency rooms, according to a New York Times analysis of Medicare data from the American Hospital Directory. Regulators say physicians have changed the way they bill for office visits similarly, increasing their payments by billions of dollars as well.
The most aggressive billing — by just 1,700 of the more than 440,000 doctors in the country — cost Medicare as much as $100 million in 2010 alone, federal regulators said in a recent report, noting that the largest share of those doctors specialized in family practice, internal medicine and emergency care.
For instance, the portion of patients that the emergency department at Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare in Utica, N.Y., claimed required the highest levels of treatment — and thus higher reimbursements — rose 43 percent in 2009. That was the same year the hospital began using electronic health records.
The share of highest-paying claims at Baptist Hospital in Nashville climbed 82 percent in 2010, the year after it began using a software system for its emergency room records.
Some experts blame a substantial share of the higher payments on the increasingly widespread use of electronic health record systems. Some of these programs can automatically generate detailed patient histories, or allow doctors to cut and paste the same examination findings for multiple patients — a practice called cloning — with the click of a button or the swipe of a finger on an iPad, making it appear that the physicians conducted more thorough exams than, perhaps, they did.
Critics say the abuses are widespread. “It’s like doping and bicycling,” said Dr. Donald W. Simborg, who was the chairman of federal panels examining the potential for fraud with electronic systems. “Everybody knows it’s going on.”
I contain to believe that EMRs will eventually transform health care for the better. But the idea that they would instantly lead to cost savings always struck me as naive. As the NYT article illustrates, the killer app for doctors–both the vast majority of legit ones and the nasty minority of scammers–is to find a way to boost their revenues and profits.