Don't Get Fooled Again: Insider's Tips on How to Tell the Difference between EHR Consultants and Resellers

MDNG Psychiatry, July 2009, Volume 11, Issue 2

You may have seen advertisements, or may already have been contacted by people who’ve promised to help you figure it all out so you can get your share of the stimulus money. Be wary.

You may have seen advertisements, or may already have been contacted by people who’ve promised to help you figure it all out so you can get your share of the stimulus money. Be wary. The truth is that the Obama administration is still defining many essential elements of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), and full details about the exact reimbursement process will not be known until the fourth quarter of this year, at the earliest.

Nonetheless, there is a growing field of people who call themselves “EHR consultants.” They promise to advise you on which system to purchase for your needs, help set up and integrate the necessary hardware and software, and perhaps even troubleshoot any on-going problems you may have. Sounds tempting, right?

The difference is in the details

Let me stress that many EHR consultants are legitimate and can provide valuable services at a reasonable price. But there are some pitfalls to avoid. First, let’s define the difference between a consultant and a reseller. A consultant should be completely independent and have no relationship, financial or otherwise, with the vendors they recommend or refer to you. Conversely, a reseller receives payments from an EHR vendor for providing leads or getting a practice to purchase that specific EHR. An ethical consultant (ie, a reseller) will let you know upfront that they have a fiduciary relationship with one or more vendors, and then you can make an informed decision on the advice they provide. Many consultants and EHR/technology “experts,” however, quietly arrange kick-backs with various EHR vendors and fail to disclose this conflict of interest to their perspective clients.

There is one quick way to tell if you’re dealing with a consultant or a reseller. A reseller’s services should be free to you because the vendor is picking up the tab by paying the reseller a percentage of the sale, or some other pre-arranged fee. You know in advance that a reseller is going to steer you toward a particular product, and you can thus take what they say with the same healthy dose of skepticism that we apply to information we receive from drug reps.

On the other hand, if you are paying for services and recommendations, then you are dealing with a consultant who should be giving you unbiased advice. Unfortunately, a good number of consultants accept fees from doctors but then also receive referral fees from vendors for sending them potential clients. These payments may be in the form of cash, discounted hardware and software, or anything else of value.

The wild frontier

The EHR industry is relatively young and appears to be one of the exciting growth areas in an otherwise slumping economy. But this has resulted in a Wild West-like frontier where the various players (eg, vendors, consultants, resellers, state and local groups, and other agencies) can say just about anything without disclosing anything. And many IT companies and other consultants (even physicians seeking to earn some extra money) have agreements with software companies to receive payment for steering potential clients toward a specific vendor. Surprisingly, many of these otherwise honest people feel that if they aren’t specifically asked if they receive compensation from vendors (whether it be for directing leads, providing a recommendation, reselling, or even providing consultant services to the EHR vendor), they don’t need to share this information with their client or colleague.

You need to ensure that the information you receive from these “experts” is unbiased and based on the reasonable approach of matching your practice’s needs with the available solutions. A few key steps could save you tens of thousands of dollars in hardware and software expenses, not to mention the frustration of being cajoled into purchasing an overpriced and unusable EHR that you’ll regret later:

• When considering an EHR consultant, ask them pointblank if they have any relationship with one or more vendors, and ask exactly how those relationships work.

• Ask the consultant how many practices of similar size and specialty they have helped in the past, and get at least three different practice names and contact information to confirm that they were pleased with the consultant, would recommend their services, and would use them again.

• For smaller practices, be especially wary of consultants who also sell IT hardware and/or technical support. In my experience, IT consultants tend to recommend significantly more complex (and expensive) hardware and software than is necessary for the average small medical practice.

The third point deserves a bit more discussion, since many of the consultants in the EHR space also provide IT services and sell computers, servers, and other hardware. The main problem with hiring an IT consultant for guidance is that all too often these technologically -minded people push equipment and policies that are significantly more expensive and complex than is reasonable to run a small practice.

In my experience as an EHR vendor, all too frequently when an IT consultant is used, the practice ends up not only spending much more on hardware than my non-IT-consultant practices, but they have much less of an understanding of their system and thus an inability to troubleshoot issues that arise from time to time. In fact, Amazing Charts (my EHR company) recently raised prices for additional providers because we found that larger practices tend to have overly complex technology infrastructures based on the recommendations of their IT consultants. These systems take more time and energy to troubleshoot, and much more frequently, hardware and network issues are the source of the difficulties that lead to downtime.

Everybody does it, right?

Even big companies can be guilty of up-selling unnecessary equipment to small practices. For example, Amazing Charts used to recommend our users contact Dell to get advice and affordable systems. While Dell certainly makes good and affordable hardware, many of our clients called Dell and ended up directed to Dell telesales representatives who regularly scared them into purchasing big servers, tape backup systems, and other equipment because they were a “medical practice.” Most of the up-selling of robust servers and other equipment is completely unnecessary if you perform regular data backups and follow basic networking guidance.

When a consultant does recommend a specific product, whether an EHR system or anything else, do some online research to find out what others have to say. The American Association of Family Physicians (www.aafp.com) has a good site for researching EHR software (ie, the Center for Health IT). Message boards can be another useful research resource, if you have time to sort through all the garble.

The most important take-away from this month’s column is to make sure that your independent EHR consultant is not actually shilling for someone else. Get it in writing so you have some legal recourse if you make a purchase and have buyer’s regret a few months later.

Dr. Bertman is Physician Editor-in-Chief of MDNG: Primary Care/Cardiology Edition. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts.com, a leading developer of EHR software. He is also the founder and president of AfraidToAsk.com, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI.