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What’s News: Demonstrating Usability of Medical Records

Time-pressured doctors lag behind many other professionals in adopting computer technology into their practices. But as pressures mount for electronic medical records, they finally have to decide which systems will best meet their needs.

To help them decide, the Medical Records Institute (MRI), a private organization whose mission is “to promote and enhance the journey towards electronic medical records, e-health, mobile health, and related applications of information technologies,” has been comparing systems for years to promote interoperability and the use of common standards in these computer programs.

Believing that it is in the interest of both physicians and vendors to improve the ability to make informed buying decisions, the MRI launched EMRCompare, a website that compares electronic medical records programs on usability, costs and functionalities.

MRI chief executive officer Peter Waegemann notes that finding the correct way to assess usability of these products has been an evolving process. They initially tried looking at factors such as heuristics, numbers of clicks required, and “ease of use”. But who defines “ease of use”? “We intended to use judges, but that didn’t work because we found that each person who tested it had a different view of it. One would think it was wonderful, the next would think it was terrible.”

To try to make side-by-side comparisons more meaningful, each vendor is now given the same patient scenario and asked to demonstrate, at the National Health Information Capture conference, how that scenario would be handled in their system. In particular, vendors are expected to demonstrate:

  • The ease-of-use of the product in the physician office with respect to tasks necessary to complete the scenario
  • The ability of the product to improve workflow efficiencies
  • The effectiveness of the product in providing decision support for patient care

During each presentation, the cost and functionality data submitted in advance by the vendors are also made available to the audience. The demonstrations are recorded and then posted on the EMRCompare website.

Of course, features that might look wonderful in a demonstration may prove too cumbersome in a busy, time-stressed office. Or the learning curve might be too long. But given the hectic pace of life for most doctors, finding enough physicians who will spend their time doing real field testing and comparing systems is no easy task. So while the EMRCompare approach is not exactly real-world testing, at least it is a step in the right direction, and it is exposing the vendors and physicians to the word “usability” and the idea that usability is important.