The HITECH Stimulus Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, promotes the adoption of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) by reimbursing qualified physicians for purchasing and implementing certified systems. Healthcare lags sorely behind other economic sectors in adopting information technology. Most experts agree that EMRs can bring many benefits to the healthcare system, including lowering costs and improving patient care. However, physicians in general have not been enthusiastic in moving away from their old paper systems. Congress passed the HITECH stimulus act to help motivate physicians to make the switch.

Key to the process is a term known as “meaningful use.” Physicians can’t simply purchase any EMR system and expect to receive a check from the government. “Meaningful use” outlines a set of requirements that both physicians and EMR vendors will have to implement in their systems. The program starts in 2011, and reports indicate the government will focus on basic requirements that everyone “can achieve quickly and reasonably.” The first year will focus on structure, where physicians need to purchase, implement, and being using their EMR systems.

Meaningful use requirements will expand in subsequent years. 2013 requirements will focus on process measures to make sure physicians are using their EMR systems for every patient. In contrast, the 2015 requirements will focus on outcomes and try to measure impact on the quality of care, via data reporting to CMS. The HIT policy committee has already submitted preliminary requirements for 2011. However, CMS will have the final say, and expects to publish the rules for comment in December.

Although meaningful use requirements are not official, there is enough certainty that EMR vendors and physicians can start their implementations. Any changes in the 2011 proposed requirements are expected to be less stringent, making it easier for vendors and physicians to qualify. Physicians need to start narrowing down their choices and being making their purchase decisions.

Getting started early is vitally important to anyone who wants to receive stimulus reimbursements. Early adoption will give physicians plenty of time to implement a system and establish meaningful use requirements. Implementing an EMR system is not like buying off-the-shelf software. Physicians should expect the process to take a couple of months, at a minimum. Physicians may need to acquire funding, purchase and install hardware, set aside time for training, and roll out the system in their practice. Implementation can make or break even the best EMR system, and should not be rushed.

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Ryan Ricks

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