In May, HCTec CEO Bill Grana published a company article on the evolution of the EHR entitled, “The EHR Is Dead. Long Live the EHR.” In August, digital health strategy consultant Seth Joseph published a similarly titled article, “Long Live the EHR Platform” on Forbes.com.

The key distinction in the headline encompasses his argument for the future of EHRs. Joseph’s two-part article is both comprehensive and detailed. He provides compelling analysis and research, sourced from industry experts to assert that while the government-backed investment (ARRA, HITECH ACT) into EHR adoption did, in fact, achieve the goal of wider physician and hospital adoption of EHRs based on government Meaningful Use (MU) criteria, EHRs collectively have been a disappointment and have not lived up to the hype.

For the most part, I agree with his points and appreciate his arguments, but drawing on 25 years of healthcare IT leadership as my lens, I politely disagree with a few of them. I’ve outlined my thoughts below, but head over to HIStalk to read more and join the conversation.

To compete in a subsidized marketplace, vendors couldn’t just be best-of-breed for specialized focus areas. They needed robust capabilities to survive. In effect, they grew to be “a mile wide, but an inch short in the most important ways.”

In the short term, EHR vendors certainly focused on becoming certified by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be MU-compliant. However, hospitals still had the ability to continue using the best-of-breed approach, as modular certifications allowed systems to be certified using a subset of criteria intended for their specific use. Examples of best-of-breed areas include laboratory, surgical, radiology, pharmacy, decision support, oncology, home health, and revenue cycle.

Many hospitals continue to use specialty systems for all the above. But more frequently, they are looking to decrease the overall complexity of running multiple EHRs. If anything, the MU era accelerated the move from full best-of-breed solutions to a modified hybrid approach, where hospitals use a primary EHR with select departmental solutions as necessary. Then, if and when the EHR vendor can provide a sufficient solution with functionality on par with the independent solution, the supplementary solution is often phased out.

In my experience, best-of-breed systems are difficult to manage and costly to maintain. In instances that my company has seen, many health systems agree with me. To illustrate, a Southeastern-based health system recently migrated one of its markets onto Epic from a combination of Cerner (acute side), a third-party home health system, multiple ambulatory systems, and over 50 related third-party applications. Similarly, we have supported many Epic-based organizations move from their independent departmental solution to Epic’s Beaker module this year.

EHRs went from competing on the value of their product to competing on the breadth of functions they offered. Epic achieved its dominant market share for this reason. It offered hospital CIOs a one-stop shop at a time when the CIO’s job was dependent upon helping the organization achieve Meaningful Use of EHRs, no matter how much physicians detested the actual software.

Introduced in 2009, MU can’t take credit for the complete success of EHRs. Epic, for example, was already long thriving as an EHR market leader for hospitals with 400 or more beds by then. Kaiser Permanente became an Epic client in 2003 as part of a $1.8 billion deal, and by 2005, their client base included the likes of Cleveland Clinic Foundation and Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. This shows that while MU may have accelerated the move to Epic for many health systems, Epic wasn’t just competing on the MU compliance to win deals. They were winning deals due to their ability to not only provide a solution that handled both the inpatient and outpatient areas, but one that was developed 100% in-house, without the need for mergers or acquisitions.

Normally, CIOs selecting Epic were not dealing with physicians who detested the Epic EHR. Epic was even known in the marketplace for “selecting” its clients. Commonly, in my personal experience with many Epic organizations, the deciding factor was Epic’s ability to provide multiple reference sites running their full product suite, whereas competitors struggled to do the same.

“EHRs have been more than a disappointment: they have largely turned into a national nightmare…. Additionally, while EHRs may improve safety in some areas, they also introduce new risks that are systemic in nature.”

There are undoubtedly drawbacks to EHRs, and we certainly have not yet fully realized the potential of these digital systems, but to say they are a sweeping disappointment suggests that they have not offered any societal benefit. Before EHRs, providers struggled to have a clear picture of a patient’s health background, even within the same organization. A patient could go to the ER and later visit a primary care physician, who had no record of that visit or what occurred during it.

Our nation would have had a difficult time shifting to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic without the currently deployed EHRs. With EHR systems, we can now better share critical patient data across a healthcare organization and even across other healthcare systems when required. For those populations who spend different seasons in different parts of the country, the ability for their separate health systems to “talk” and share health information is an invaluable component in their health journey. With an EHR, providers can access real-time, up-to-date patient information, regardless of where treatment was provided. This element alone is vital for patient safety and care.

“By virtually every financial and operational metric, the business prospects for EHRs have gone in one direction over the past decade: down.”

Joseph is correct that EHR vendors have seen a downturn in the number of net new EHR implementations. Recent implementations appear to be driven by mergers and acquisitions or the routine replacement life cycle when the current EHR is not meeting organizational needs, with a traditional selection process to identify a new solution. More commonly, smaller, specific modules are being introduced as opposed to the full EHR implementations. While EHR vendors have seen declining revenues post MU, which is not totally unexpected, their futures are ripe with opportunity. They will adapt to the changing environment and will take steps (or have already taken steps) to size their workforce accordingly based on the future demands for maintenance / support and new implementations.

I share Joseph’s curiosity as to the future of EHRs. For now, Meditech is seeing more traction with its Expanse solution, with HCA most recently announcing they are implementing the solution at three HCA hospitals in the New Hampshire market. Meditech will realize tremendous growth with HCA if they are able to move the system’s vast footprint of hospitals running the Meditech Magic EHR onto their Expanse solution. Meditech would also realize a significant loss of business if HCA moved away from Meditech altogether.

Epic has chosen a strategic route in developing a web-based client (Hyperdrive) to generally replace the desktop client (Hyperspace). Hyperdrive clients should experience cost savings from the reduced manpower and related technologies necessary to support a web-based client. These savings could also open the door for new adoption at smaller organizations by finally making the ongoing TCO of running Epic feasible. During the pandemic, Epic was also able to deliver their clients a solution, including the underlying technology, for patient telehealth visits representing an unexpected boost in revenue, which luckily for Epic, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the next boom for major EHR providers will be international growth as opposed to domestic. Whatever the next big break is, I’m curious to see what Joseph sees in his crystal ball for the future of EHRs.