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Finding the right EHR vendor for your facility: A buyer's guide

For solo physician practices, as well as multihospital systems straddling state lines, the steps for choosing an EHR vendor are similar. This buyer's guide covers all the bases.

The process of choosing an electronic health record vendor can be quite arduous, especially if a health care provider has never used EHR software before. With the release of the meaningful use final rule and the standards and certification final rule, health care providers now know how they must use EHR technology, but many questions undoubtedly remain. This buyer's guide will help providers know what features to look for and what questions to ask as they select an EHR vendor.

Electronic health record systems could change health care just as bar codes forever altered the retail industry. But with health care, there's a lot more on the line than just cutting costs and maximizing efficiency. Electronic health records could improve the health of individual patients by electronically coordinating the care from all their providers, sharing lab results and supporting electronic prescriptions. Moreover, clinical decision support promises to reduce such errors as incorrect medical procedures or drug treatments that can't be taken together or to which a patient is allergic.

On a more massive scale, public health researchers could improve the health of the U.S. population as a whole by developing better treatments from the knowledge they gain from examining the new, rich data collected through a standardized national network of interoperable EHR systems.

That's the theory, at least -- if all the health care providers can get on the same standards page.

To accomplish these goals, federal authorities in both the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, or ONC, set rules and deadlines for the certification of the EHR systems health care providers will use, as instructed by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health, or HITECH, Act.

The first step in buying an EHR system has nothing to do with software. Instead, it's workflow analysis.

The choice of an EHR vendor, however, is up to providers, as is the responsibility for getting certified for meaningful use -- the key to earning financial incentives and avoiding reimbursement penalties. The hard part? Narrowing the choice to one, out of hundreds of EHR vendors.

Most hospital IT leaders and national experts tell SearchHealthIT.com that the first step in buying an EHR system has nothing to do with software. Instead, it's workflow analysis: Look at how information presently flows in your office, and pinpoint bottlenecks that need improvement. Typically, these are time-wasting processes that frustrate physicians, nurses and front office staff. They also can be billing holes, which lose income for a practice when treatments fall through the billing cracks, get rejected because they're coded incorrectly, or require staff to conduct numerous follow-ups in order to receive reimbursement.

Fix these problems first. If you don't, an EHR system simply turns a bad paper workflow into a bad electronic one. For some, the best fit will be to rip and replace practice management and billing systems at the same time and start over with an integrated applications suite.

The next section of this buyer's guide examines the common features of EHR systems and what providers should look for in an EHR vendor to make sure they get the most from those features.

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