Whether or not you were involved in the vendor selection process, you and your communications team face a steep learning curve in the world of EMRs. The more you understand the EMR software, how it works, and its impact on your organization, the better your communications solutions will be.
Here are four actions you can do to take a deep dive in EMR implementations and come up to speed — fast.
1. Get on the EMR Implementation Committee
EMRs are software applications, so IT will be an important member of your organization's EMR implementation committee. But IT is not operating in isolation. Other department heads, from operations and the medical records department to HR and administration, will serve on the committee. And so should you!
To give you an idea on why having a seat at the table is so important, take a look at the personnel who usually attend these meetings:
- Chief Information Officer
- Chief Medical Information Officer (most likely a physician)
- Director of Nursing
- Clinical Applications Supervisor
- Project Sponsors, most likely a physician and an RN
- Project Director
- Project Manager and Applications Analysts
- VP of Communications or Communications Manager (that's you!)
The benefits to participating on the EMR implementation committee cannot be overstated:
- You stay ahead of the game: As a committee member, you'll gain valuable insight into the impact of moving from paper-based records to EMRs as well as the timeline and who will be affected. Knowing what's coming down the pike means you can be proactive rather than reactive in your communications.
- You provide input to the team. A seat at the table means having influence. You're in charge of the communications plan, and you can help other members figure out who needs to know what and when, and how best to reach the audience.
- After all, you're the expert at communicating and selecting the best communications tools for the message. As a member of the EMR implementation committee, you can deflect directives, such as "just put it in the newsletter" or "send it out in an email blast." Instead, you can offer solutions that will have the greatest impact on the audience.
- You learn how the EMR tool works. It's always easier to describe something if you've used it yourself. Hands-on experience with the tool is essential to understanding how it will impact the workforce at large.
- You can suggest creating a mission statement. If it’s very early in the EMR implementation process, you can assist the planning committee in identifying project goals.
For example, the planning team at St. Luke’s Hospital in Maumee, Ohio, came up with these four goals for the organization's EMR implementation:
- Uniting Services
Whether it's simple goals or a mission statement, it will allow the planning committee and the entire health system to see the larger picture, even when everyone's grappling with all the details of the implementation.
It also helps the committee stay on track and gives your department a framework for future communications.
2. Forge Relationships with Other Departments
Your participation as a member of the EMR implementation team will help you develop important relationships with other departments. But you should also reach out to departments outside of committee meetings or departments that aren't part of the committee at all.
There are two reasons it makes sense to do this.
- Gather information. The more you know how this implementation is perceived and how it affects others in your organization, the better prepared you'll be in your communications.
- Create allies and sounding boards. It's likely that you and other department heads have never before collaborated so closely on something this critical and far-reaching in its impact. You're all going to need each other as the implementation begins.
For example, as you create communications for the roll-out, you'll have questions about its effect on everything from patient care to patient accounts. It's always easier to get help from colleagues when you've already established a good rapport with them.
The first step in forging a relationship is simple. Call or email another director or VP to discuss the EMR implementation over coffee. Request 30 minutes of their time, and tell them you're there to learn, so that you can create EMR communications that work for their audience.
They'll appreciate that you asked, and the good will you're creating will help when you have a favor to ask.
3. Talk to Healthcare Organizations that Have Implemented the Vendor's EMR
It doesn't matter how good a vendor's case studies or testimonials are. There’s nothing like talking directly with teams who have transitioned from paper to EMRs and lived to tell the tale.
The best candidates are healthcare organizations who have experience with an EMR implementation in the last year or two. Also, see if you can talk to front line staff and even patients that have moved from paper records to EMRs. The information you glean from them will be much more helpful than simply reaching out to the healthcare organization's communications team.
As you talk to these folks, ask them about the benefits, internal successes and patient experience. You're looking for challenges and wins that will help you craft the right communications, using the right tools for the audience.
4. Fortify Your Resources
As you've already surmised, an EMR communications initiative is a huge effort. The average EMR implementation can take up to one-and-a-half to two years. Therefore, depending on the size of your staff, you may need to re-allocate certain team members so that they focus solely on this effort.
You may also need to hire an agency or consultants to assist. For example, at the time of its first EMR implementation, MidMichigan Health had six medical centers, 80 outpatient clinics, 7,000 employees — and one internal communicator. The team opted to hire an agency to backfill areas only where the communications team didn't have expertise or bandwidth.
"We had talented, experienced communicators on our team, but we used an agency to develop a big idea that would make the campaign fun and engaging," said Megan Yezak, MidMichigan marketing manager.
The big idea — One Patient, One Record — was a space-themed communications campaign that had three phases: Kickoff and Mission Prep, Mission Control, and Liftoff. The agency also supported MidMichigan with creative, including videos, motion graphics, and a journey map.
MidMichigan deliberately handled all other communications tasks in-house. "Most health systems use a third-party integrator to configure and implement their EMR. This drives up costs and develops expertise outside, rather than inside, the organization. We decided to build our own spaceship, so to speak, so that it will be operationally easier for us to own it and maintain it going forward," Yezak said. "It was important to us to make sure that most of the work happened internally, including the communications."
That proved a wise decision. When MidMichigan added two more hospitals to its health system, it went through two more EMR implementations, in addition to ongoing upgrades and optimization.
It's a Long Journey Ahead
Like every other healthcare communications initiative you've managed, this one will take serious, long-term strategic planning and smart execution.
The deeper you dive now into the nuts and bolts of the software and its impact on your organization, the better prepared you'll be to communicate what is a positive outcome for your healthcare organization.
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About the author: Stephanie Helline is a strategic healthcare communicator who honed her craft at Kaiser Permanente on a number of large campaigns. As the owner of Strategic Health, an agency specializing in healthcare communications, she helps healthcare teams create strategic campaigns that focus on big-picture goals. She and her team facilitate the discovery of clients' "pains and gains," and use what they learn to guide the insights and strategies to improve patient care and services.