Thursday, April 24, 2014

Does Meaningful Use provide meaningful benefits to patients?

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH

The ambitious federal effort to improve the quality of patient care in the U.S. by providing up to $30 billion in incentives to physicians who demonstrate "meaningful use" of certified electronic health records (EHRs) has now entered a new stage, aptly described in a recent Family Practice Management article as either a "second wave or a tsunami," depending on one's point of view. Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services believe that meaningful use will ultimately provide meaningful benefits to patients. However, this hypothesis has largely remained untested. In an AFP editorial two years ago, I summed up the state of the science as follows: "the evidence is far from conclusive that EHRs and CDSSs [clinical decision support systems] improve preventive care processes and outcomes in primary care settings."

A research letter published last week in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the association of being a "meaningful user" with performance on 7 quality measures for hypertension, diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease, asthma, and depression during a 90-day reporting period in the fall of 2012. 540 meaningful users were compared to 318 other outpatient physicians using the same EHR in Brigham and Women's Hospital-affiliated practices. Meaningful users performed slightly better in controlling cholesterol levels and blood pressure, worse in treating asthma and depression, and the same on the 3 remaining measures, compared to non-meaningful users.

Although these preliminary findings are unlikely to affect plans to move ahead with Stages 2 and 3 of meaningful use over the next few years, they remind family physicians of the real goals of practice transformation, and caution us not to conflate meeting meaningful use targets with making patients' lives longer or healthier.