It’s About Time: Government Workshop Will Address EMR Usability

As you may know, not long ago I wrote up a rant slamming awkward-to-use EHR interfaces, an article which has drawn plenty of reader debate and discussion.

Today, I learned that the government is paying attention to this issue as well (and not a moment too soon).

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, to its friends and relations) announced that it would be holding a free workshop on EHR usability intended help all sectors of the industry collaborate on the problem. NIST hopes to attract industry players, academics, government officials and healthcare providers to the same table.

The workshop, which will take place on Tuesday, June 7 on NIST’s Gaithersburg, MD headquarters, will focus on four key questions:

  • What facets of usability should be measured?
  • What measurement methods and protocols should be used to do this?
  • What are some of the challenges to rigorous measurement and how can they be addressed?
  • How can measurement results stimulate a market and support improved usability?

Call me a cynic, but I don’t see participants making a lot of progress on these questions in a single day. Heck, you could spend weeks or months on any of these issues and still end up spinning your wheels.

That being said, it’s always good to see the bureaucrats pay attention to an issue like this. Why? Because if bureaucrats have any virtues, one is that when they grab an issue, they tend to stick to it. (I’d rather see CMS dig into this topic, but hey, NIST’s a start.)

With hundreds of EHR vendors competing for mindshare out there, it’s not likely they’ll come together to set usability standards on their own. But if pesky government types — from both the policy and tech sides — decide to dig their teeth into the usability problem, it’s probably a good thing.

I don’t know about you, but I think attending is a great idea. If any of you make it, please feel free to let us know what you learned. It should be an interesting session.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.


  • I agree that it is good that the government is paying attention to this issue, but the real question is why vendors have not addressed this issue. In fact, it is in their best interest to do so for the following reason: providers resist EHRs because of the learning curve and impact on productivity. A really well designed EHR that is highly usable should really stand out from the crowd and be differentiated from their competitors and lead to lots of sales. If I were running an EHR company, the first thing I would do is hire a bunch of PHDs in Human Factors.

  • Jonathan,
    Do you really think that a highly usable EHR would differentiate themselves from other EHR vendors? How will doctors know that one EMR is more usable than another? Certainly there’s some value of word of mouth. However, different practice methods make the usability of one EMR great for one doctor and terrible for another doctor.

    I’m honestly torn on this usability subject. Mostly because everyone enjoys usability when it’s good, but I’m not totally sold on measuring it. Especially across such a diverse set of organizations.

    Although, we definitely won’t find an answer if we don’t start looking and the best way to make something usable is to focus on it.

  • Brian, I hear you — but for what it’s worth, the people attending aren’t government officials themselves, but rather stakeholders in the industry.

    As I see it, it never hurts for government to get a full-day blast of information from people who actually know what they’re talking about.

  • Usability is better measured qualitatively. CCHIT developed a usability “grade” – they rate an EHR on a scale of 1-5.

    Unfortunately over 60% of the EHRs certified by CCHIT received the highest grade, so that tells us that the metric isn’t very meaningful.

    Further a physician who operated one of the “5 star” CCHIT EHRs commented that it is borderline unusable.

  • Well said JW. I’ve always hated both the Pass/Fail EHR certification and the 1-5 usability. Fine, give it some quantitative value if you want, but provide some qualitative information as well. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

    Add in that they’re paying the person to give them their usability rating….yeah you get the point.

  • Katherine, it’s interesting to see that several of the sessions in this workshop seem to be centered around a usability framework for EHRs, which is essentially what you suggested in your original post. I’m peripherally familiar with a few of the presenters’ research, so I hope to see videos/transcripts of the workshop afterwards. (Unfortunately, I’m supporting an implementation this week and can’t make it over to DC to attend in person.)

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