AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's two years and $8.4 billion into the government's effort to get doctors to go digital when it comes to medical records and more than a third of doctors are griping about it. A big survey found 38 percent were unhappy with their electronic record system. More now from Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney.
ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Many patients who are part of big health care systems that use electronic records say they like them, like Denver resident Marina Blake.
MARINA BLAKE: It does add a layer of customer service to my experience that is really awesome.
WHITNEY: Blake regularly sees several different doctors, and she likes that the specialists she sees can all call up the same health record that her primary care doctor uses. She says it saves time and eliminates potential misunderstandings. And she likes being able to call up her own record anytime she wants online.
BLAKE: For me, it's part of being an educated consumer. If I have more information, then I can ask better questions. I don't have to wait and maybe something gets worse in the meantime while I'm waiting to ask a question.
WHITNEY: The federal government wants every patient to see the same benefits from electronic records Blake does. Dr. Mary Wilkerson's small family practice in Denver made the leap five years ago with some pretty high expectations.
DR. MARY WILKERSON: We were told by sales people that we would make more money because we'd be more efficient, and you'd be able to see more patients. We'd be able to bill faster, get the money in the bank at the push of a button. None of that panned out.
WHITNEY: Wilkerson's practice found that electronic records actually slowed things down, and they had to cut back on patient visits. The software, she says, was really frustrating to use.
WILKERSON: Within six months of our purchase, one of the partners did not like it at all, did not like dealing with the computer and actually left the practice. And we had hoped she'd contribute to the loan that we'd taken out.
WHITNEY: They took out a loan expecting to qualify for some of the $63,000 per physician that the government's offering doctors and hospitals to go digital. Those payments are based on how many Medicare and Medicaid patients doctors see. Wilkerson thought she and her partners would get around $40,000 each. But they miscalculated and ended up getting far less. That, and not being able to see as many patients, meant they ultimately had to sell their practice.
WILKERSON: So in retrospect, I think we rushed it.
WHITNEY: Dr. Jeff Cain, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, is sympathetic with doctors who are struggling with electronic records.
DR. JEFF CAIN: Right now, we're in a transitional time. And transitional times are tough.
WHITNEY: Cain and the Academy of Family Physicians, though, says doctors need to change with the times and start taking advantage of electronic records to improve health care. And he notes that in a couple of years, Medicare is going to start cutting payments to doctors who don't use them. But he's somewhat critical of this system of incentives and penalties the government's using.
CAIN: The challenge for the family doctor with the carrot-and-stick approach that Medicare is using is the carrot's kind of hard to get to.
WHITNEY: But some doctors are discovering at least one unintended consequence that's positive for them: electronic records flag every possible opportunity to send a bill. Docs say digital systems are opening their eyes to how much they've been doing and not getting paid for. Medicare sees that differently and is now looking into whether electronically-enabled physicians might be overcharging. That argument is playing out as federal payments to help doctors buy electronic records start to ramp down. They're being offered until 2021, but the amount available gets smaller every year. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.
CORNISH: This story is part of a partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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