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MANAGING THE OFFICE

How to choose the electronic medical records vendor that’s right for you

Choosing the right electronic medical records vendor for your practice can seem like an overwhelming task—and getting it right is crucial. Before any other considerations, you want to be sure than any vendor you are considering is HITECH certified for 2014, so that you can achieve meaningful use stages one and two. This will also ensure HIPAA compliance. Beyond that the options and considerations can seem endless. But you needn’t be intimidated by the process. If you keep the following things in mind as you compare products and consider your options, choosing the right software will be a far less stressful experience.

Suit yourself

You can narrow the field considerably by considering only products specifically designed for your type of practice. If you manage a cardiology practice, for example, then you may want to consider only systems designed for cardiology. On the other hand, you may not. Jennifer Perry, practice administrator for Norwood Clinic, a large multi-specialty practice in Birmingham, AL, says that even though there are many specialty-based software packages, her group decided to go with a generic system and tweak it for each specialty. “We did lose some functionality by taking this route,” she says, “but the trade-off was that we were able to take a basic system and customize it to suit our needs. Even with a very customized EMR program, there will be things about it that don’t fit the way you work, so you’ll have to do some customizing anyway. If you start with a basic system, you can design a perfect fit for you.”

Know what you’re paying for

When you do a cost comparison, be sure to take into account training and support services, as well as particular features of the product. Don’t pay more money for bells and whistles unless those are things you’ll actually use. But do be willing to pay more if it means knowing that the vendor will be responsive to problems and issues that come up. Choosing a vendor that offers good training package is also important. Your savings could soon be lost if you have to turn around and pay an outside vendor for training.

In the office or in the cloud

Decide on the best type of storage for your practice—server-based or cloud based. “Small practices and even medium-sized practices can save on storage space and on the cost of hardware by using a could-based system, but a larger practice will need a server-based system,” says Tammie Olsen of Management Resource Group, a firm offering financial management and support services for the healthcare community. If you use a server-based system, you’ll need to decide if the data will be stored on or off-site. “If you store it onsite,” adds Perry, “you’ll need to have a recovery plan.”

Take it for a test drive

“Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to a few products, ask for a complete demo of each system, and make sure that key people from your practice attend the demos,” advises Olsen. Although it may seem to complicate the process, it is important to get input from every department. “You need to get someone from billing involved, someone from clinical, someone from IT, as well as a physician,” says Perry. Each of these departments will use the system in a slightly different way. A weak spot in any of these places can make the system a bad choice for your practice.

Read (and maybe write) the fine print

Once you’ve made a choice, don’t be too quick to sign on the dotted line. Contracts are not necessarily written in stone. If you know what to ask for, you can often get tweaks and concessions in your contract that can save you a tremendous amount of grief on down the road. Jeffery Daigrepont, healthcare IT expert and vice president of the Coker Group, a firm of healthcare industry advisers who provide free EMR contract review for practices, suggests you ask, at a minimum, for version protection in your contract. “Vendors often discontinue products. If this happens to your software, and you don’t have version protection in your contract, you may not be able to get upgrades and could be forced to pay to migrate to a new version, or even buy an entirely new system,” he explains. He also advises that you get a guarantee from your vendor that they will keep up with HITECH certification. “Just because they are compliant when you buy the program, doesn’t mean they’ll stay current.”

Avery Hurt is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. She often writes about medical economics and the intersection of medicine and social policy. 

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