PCHIT Personas: Small Practice

Sites Visited

Innovative, and Pressured

Blackhawk Medical Center - New and Old together

Blackhawk Medical Center:
New displacing Old

Small practices compose the bulk of physician organizations – 93 percent of US practices have less than 6 physicians, 96 percent have less than 10 physicians*. Percent penetration of “full” electronic health records in this population is still less than 10 percent, with up to 24 percent with some form of EHR (see Electronic Health Records Still Not Routine Part of Medial Practice, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). This makes for a large potential market for vendors on the one hand, and a more costly sales proposition on the other hand. To quote the AC Group (White Paper on 2006 EHR/EMR Marketplace):

it appears that the adoption rate is increasing by only 32% per year. Therefore, if the current trend continues, the total adoption rate will only be around 52% by 2010. So what will it take to increase EHR adoption? The industry must create financial incentives for physician adoption. Without financial incentives, the US EHR market will never exceed 50%.

We witnessed this challenge at Blackhawk Medical Center, part of the John Muir Physician Network. The practice has purchased an EHR with its own funds, with plans to tie to the larger organization’s patient portal.

Implementing an EHR within a small practice places pressure on the practice itself to show return on investment in the long term, and in the short term, to justify the upheaval caused by this transformation. When we went to shadow Dr. Schierman in his office, he apologized for the appearance of medical charts on his desk, which he was methodically reviewing in preparation for scanning. This is balanced by the external pressure of competing group model practices in the area who generally have higher HIT adoption rates and richer support (financial, technical, legal). A survey performed by the California Medical Association in 2005 and reported by the California Healthcare Foundation found that the greatest barrier to EHR use among physicians was the expense to purchase them (see Electronic Health Records Still Not Routine Part of Medial Practice, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and “Snapshot: The State of Health Information Technology in California, 2008 – CHCF.org”).

At the same time, projects like the Center for Practice Innovation of the American College of Physicians, are bringing forward practitioners who illustrate an advantage of these practices (see Small Practices leading the way: ACP’s Center for Practice Innovation).

Because the locus of control is within the practice in terms of workflow and information technology, there is a greater capability to experiment. In addition, there is greater capability to experiment with lighter-weight systems, including systems that are subscription-based, to examine changes in care independent of the technology. At the CPI’s November meeting, I saw several presentations given by small practices about their use of subscription based messaging and patient-entered-data systems.

One interesting development I noticed was the Ideal Micropractice, where physicians have minimal to no support staff, and with it a much greater capability to experiment with patient-centered health care and technology in support of a different cost-model for medical care.

All of this said, we did not find deep understanding of the value of personal health records in these environments. I (Ted) found that there was ready uptake of the concepts when they were introduced in these groups. However, there was a noted tendency before the conversation started to have a bias toward inaction. At the Center for Practice Improvement’s November meeting bore this out. Prior to several presentations touching on patient-physician messaging, a question was asked of the audience about patient-physician e-mail, with an ambivalent response. Following the presentations however, several individuals appeared much more enthusiastic about this work.

Awareness-building is occurring on a national basis as well. In a 2007 article in Family Practice Management, “Are your Patients Ready for Electronic Communication?,” the authors come to a surprising conclusion about their practice:

Overall, we were pleased to learn that 88 percent of our patients are able to access the Internet or e-mail either at home, through a public facility, or through family or friends. We had anticipated a much lower number. We were also impressed that 78 percent of patients with Internet access (either at home or elsewhere) expressed interest in using some form of electronic communication either to contact our office or to receive health-related information from our office.

I experienced a similar finding within the practice at Blackhawk Medical Center, when Dr. Michael Schierman took the time to ask each of his patients that day how they would feel about patient-physician messaging. The answers to the question, once asked, and the response, were similar to what was written about in the article above.

Unresolved Issues

  • Funding sources for small practices to adopt health information technology are less clear relative to safety net providers or larger practices
  • Conventional wisdom about the value of patient access to their health information online may lend to inaction
  • External environment/incentives send an ambiguous message regarding adoption of patient accesss in electronic health record implementation


Final resting spot for charts

Charts, scanned, secured, and ready for permanent storage

We plan to continue following the John Muir experience, given the presence of a strategy to integrate a patient portal and an electronic health record, and the innovative nature of this practice to begin with. This may provide support for the idea of PHRs in other practices. We would also like to connect with payers who support small practices to examine the relative priority given to supporting technology and patient-centered care in payment policies.

Ways to Engage

  • Connection with innovators in the field
  • Connection with specialty societies and practice innovation centers
  • Connection at the payer level

*A note about practice size

In reviewing data for this persona, we came across several different measures for practice size, including “Percent physicians practicing in a practice of a certain size” and “Percent of practices of a certain size.” In our travels, we have also witnessed the communication of this data differently. For the purposes of this special report, we prefer to report by “Percent practices of a certain size” since this represents the experience that a patient will see when they receive care, and since a practice is most likely the unit of adoption of HIT.

To see a list of links that display this data different ways, go to PCHIT Personas: Practice Size

Ted Eytan, MD