Practice Fusion’s Ryan Howard: Five benefits of cloud-based electronic health records (EHRs)

ryan-howardThis is the year for health IT. With federal stimulus dollars on the table, healthcare providers — large and small — are making the switch from paper charts to electronic records. Well-implemented, usable EHRs have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare sector. For a look at how one company is doing just that, ExecutiveBiz recently spoke with Ryan Howard, CEO of Practice Fusion (right). Since its launch in 2005, the San Francisco-based company has been providing a SaaS-based Electronic Health Record system to the healthcare market. Along the way, the company has become one of the fastest growing electronic health information networks in the United States. Practice Fusion offers a free, web-based solution anchored in cloud computing — a technology that’s been serving as an attractive option to a frequently overlooked sliver of the healthcare market: doctors’ offices with physicians of nine or less. They constitute 80 percent of the 900,000 physicians nationwide and typically lack sufficient IT resources to spearhead EHR adoption via a traditional (and more costly) software enterprise. Here Howard offers five facts to consider about EHR adoption, based upon a cloud approach. A must-read for any company looking for ideas on how to enlarge its own health IT footprint.

1.) A cloud-based model is cost-effective. Currently, installing medical software entails significant costs — typically $50,000 in upfront product licensing for a small practice — as well as ongoing maintenance and staff training. “The ability to scale with that model is capped by manpower and budget,” says Howard. Practice Fusion’s web-based solution, by contrast, offers the ability to scale much faster, with dramatically less manpower and hardware, he says. By last count, Practice Fusion was bringing on board 300 to 400 users a week. “A cloud-based approach essentially does the heavy lifting for the doctor, it’s a ‘live in five’ process,” says Howard.

2.) A cloud-based model is secure. “We have redundancy, mirrored backup, we’re behind firewalls,” says Howard, whose product is hosted within the enterprise cloud computing company, salesforce.com, and its force.com platform. For an individual practice to have that level of security, adds Howard, would require an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. “That kind of security and value could apply to any small or medium enterprise that wants to outsource their technology,” he says.

3.) Federal criteria for meaningful use will likely cover three scenarios. For any hospital or practice to receive a government subsidy for the implementation of electronic health records, it must comply with the definition of “meaningful use.” That’s the rub, of course; the definition still remains hazy. But Howard has a few ideas of where that definition is heading. “Our expectation is that ‘meaningful use’ will cover three main things: e-prescribing, reporting data such as lab results, and interoperability,” he says. Interoperability, he adds, means the ability for medical providers to share patient data back and forth.

4.) Aligning with a web-based provider is key. The reason, says Howard, is simple: Certification criteria still have not been defined across the board. So any healthcare provider should beware of making any sizable investment in a product that lacks a guarantee, says Howard. “I would basically be aligned with a vendor that has some type of web-based model,” he says, “ so that when with a feature set requires a change according to meaningful use, it can quickly be updated.” Ultimately, don’t just compare cost with value when shopping for an EHR, says Howard. “Inexpensive EHRs actually lead the way in this type of flexibility … on a broader level, this [a web-based model’s ease of flexibility] means that a lot of physicians who previously set-up an EHR will have to ‘rip and replace’ their legacy systems with a new system in order to qualify for the stimulus dollars,” he says.

5.) The future belongs to a centralized platform. The days of point-to-point integration between small doctors is over, says Howard. The current status quo is unsustainable, he adds. Says Howard: “If I transfer an electronic health record to someone, and they install it in their office’s EHR, who owns the record? How is it synchronized? How do we know which record is the latest? It can only be done on a centralized platform.” Howard’s prognosis? “I really think these larger networks will come from larger web-based vendors that are housing the masses of data.”

What do you think of a cloud-based approach to EHRs? Share your comments here.

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